At Bokamoso, theatre becomes therapy

Can art change the course of a person’s life? Professor Leslie Jacobson in the department of theatre and dance believes it can.

Jacobson recently returned from a mission to work at the Bokamoso Life Center in rural Winterveld, South Africa, where she helped use art to overcome disease, sexual abuse and economic hardship for the community’s youth.

“The center offers an alternative to young people,” said Jacobson. “Through art, they can discover what they are good at and turn their lives around.”

Every three months, about 40 10 to 18 year olds in the impoverished area are taught courses in music, dance and theatre. The day begins at 8:30 a.m. with gospel and traditional African song done by the entire group, then students work on movement, improvisation and telling personal stories, which culminates at the end of the program in a final performance put together by the students and visiting teachers.

“Theatre at Bokamoso is used as an instrument of healing and change,” Jacobson said. “It is an opportunity for students to focus their thinking and learn how to express themselves, to turn their difficult experiences into art.”

Scholarships are awarded each January for a dozen of the young people to spend a month in the Washington area as ambassadors of their community. Last year, the students spent one week on the trip living with host students in GW residence halls and performed their play as a fundraiser in the Betts Marvin Theatre.

The trip this summer was just the latest installment in an annual experience for Jacobson, who has been returning to the South Adrica since the summer of 2003 to write plays and work with the kids. It is also an educational trip – seniors Scout Seide, Elizabeth Acevedo and Caroline O’Grady joined Jacobson this year from the middle of July until August.

Each brought a personal talent to share, as Seide taught dance, Acevedo created poetry and O’Grady worked on a documentary about the center. The girls also had the opportunity to view the rest of the country – touring Cape Town, visiting Nelson Mandela’s home in Johannesburg and traveling through a game reserve.

“I wanted them to get a sense of the country, that it is a big place filled with so much diversity,” said Jacobson.

The future of students who go through the center is bright – after all, the term Bokamoso translates into “future” in the Setswana language. Some may earn a scholarship to a community or private college, while others may just have a stronger ambition to make something of themselves, Jacobson said.

The future relationship between GW and the program may be bright, as well. Jacobson, who also teaches a course called “Theatre of Social Change,” hopes to make the trip accessible to more interested students. Jacobson is in talks to turn the trip into a course available for credit in the near future.

“Bokamoso really helps to build a future for most of the [African students] who go through it,” said Jacobson. “I’d like to see that this program, and our relationship with them, continues.”

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