Date of Award

Winter 12-15-2014

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This dissertation examines theatre as part of an artistic movement in South Africa to address the social, structural, and emotional repercussions of HIV, as well as a space in which knowledge about HIV/AIDS is actively created, mediated, reproduced, challenged, and presented for public consumption. Although applied theatre has a long history in the country, I focus on innovation in recent theatrical practices that have occurred as artists and members of broader civil society struggle to understand the trajectory of the country's AIDS epidemic and question the scope of popular national HIV intervention campaigns. I use emerging forms of cultural production as a lens through which to interrogate knowledge production and representation about HIV/AIDS, illness, and sexuality in the post-apartheid era; the effects of HIV/AIDS within communities and in individual people's lived experience; and the creative responses front-line health workers develop to mediate between global public health agendas and the particularities of local health needs.

I follow the lives of 81 urban theatre-makers across 20 different artistic groups at mainstream, community, university, and non-governmental organization levels. I focus on the lived experiences of six theatre groups and four independent, experimental theatre-makers as a representative cross-section of the artists with whom I worked. My research extends the domain of medical anthropology beyond conventional health settings to include analysis of how artistic technologies lend themselves to HIV/AIDS communication and intervention practices. In particular, I identify and explore certain artistic technologies that are engaged by theatre-makers to rework definitions of health, illness, reflexivity, and activism for the contemporary moment.

Principally, I analyze the kinds of language and optics theatre-makers are starting to incorporate into their intervention work on HIV/AIDS and how these changes reflect broader shifts in their ideas about the possibilities for health programming in the second decade after democratization. I argue that theatre-makers are actively challenging the scope and techniques of reflexivity implicit in dominant public health models for HIV intervention. While common global public health attention to HIV/AIDS often privileges focus on biomedical facts or analysis of underlying structural factors that contribute to health inequalities, many artists in the country have recently begun interrogating what they call "life's complexities": the hard-to-explain parts of human lives that emerge, not fully rationally understood by the people experiencing them, during times of economic, social, political, environmental, and biological disruption or from contradictions in life. I analyze how, why, and in reaction to what political pressures theatre-makers have begun acknowledging this kind of complexity within interventions related to HIV. In addition, I present ethnographic data for a grounded analysis of what complexity means to the people with whom I worked. I then take those local understandings as a basis for theorizing.

I argue that theatre-makers are using the focus on "complexity" as a point of entry to produce expanded forms of reflexivity meant to handle or engage with the kinds of existential concerns that emerge during lived experience of systemic structural inequality, marginality, violence, illness, and vulnerability. In addition, I suggest theatre-makers are positioning these new ideas about reflexivity as a form of health activism for the post-apartheid era and subtly but significantly recasting the individual/community dichotomy implicit in many global public health outreach programs by challenging neoliberal conceptions of the responsible health citizen. Through these shifts, I argue that theatre-makers are actively developing and promoting an alternative form of health subjectivity based on critical reflexivity around the relationships between self, society, structure, and agency.

A final goal of this project was to provide an anthropological critique of theatre as an institution within the broader healthcare industry of South Africa. I investigate how power and oppression articulate within the artistic sector and contribute to differences between how theatre-makers talk about the style and content of their work and what kinds of health theatre are implemented in practice. Examining both what is said and what is done illuminates the tensions health workers face on the ground in mediating between ideological convictions and the structural constraints that often heavily influence applied practice. I analyze what kinds of power are involved in the health theatre sector's interactions with other institutions in the country, as well as what kinds of creativity are enacted when theatre-makers attempt to negotiate the competing interests of involved stakeholders and work at the interstices of disciplinary boundaries.

I explicate the kinds of institutional power and influence that shape the context in which knowledge about HIV/AIDS is produced within the arts, how theatre-makers experience these contexts, and what strategies artists implement when they begin to engage with institutional power structures. In addition, I argue that theatre-makers have begun deploying certain ideologies and discursive topics as a bid to gain cultural capital, structural power, and material resources within the broader HIV/AIDS intervention industry. These topics include narratives about creative economy, interdisciplinarity, and complementarity in programming that work together to privilege multiple modalities of treatment, prevention, and care rather than narrowly supporting biomedical notions of health. I maintain this perspective provides a way to make the symbolic and social boundaries between intervention models permeable in order to promote certain projects of artists, such as expanding definitions of healing. Finally, I suggest that one of the main ways theatre-makers are creatively speaking back to institutional power and struggles over program resources and sector positioning is by challenging hegemonic metrics of "progress" and "success" within interventions as a way to effect social change.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Carolyn Sargent

Committee Members

Peter Benson, Shanti Parikh, Bradley Stoner, Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr., Julia A. Walker


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Anthropology Commons