Can Performative Counter-Storytelling Facilitate Critical Social Change?

A new study examines how theater and storytelling can shift dominant perspectives on marginalized groups.


Community arts and artistic practice have been important for changing enduring systems of injustice for individuals and communities in areas such as mental health and racial profiling.

A recent study by Christina Maxwell and Christopher Sonn at Victoria University explores how theater can facilitate critical reflexivity on race by performing suppressed narratives. The study collected audience data from a performance in Melbourne created by Africans in Australia as a counter-narrative to dominant cultural narratives about race.

Dominant cultural narratives are usually “unconscious, entrenched, and perpetuated through institutions and everyday interactions to legitimize some bodies and vilify others.” Performative counter-storytelling is one method of challenging these narratives by presenting self-authored stories by the communities that dominant narratives (mis)represent. Maxwell and Sonn write:

“Counter-storytelling intends to dismantle overlearned, reductionist, and oppressive representations of marginalized people while offering balanced and more complex accounts of experience.”

Counter-storytelling thus challenges the validity and completeness of the dominant cultural narratives available in the public domain.

Several research studies on community arts suggest that participation in art-making can improve mental well-being and social inclusion for persons with mental health challenges. The production and presentation of counter-narratives can also work to combat stigmatizing stereotypes for minoritized groups and people who experience non-normative mental states.

While performative counter-storytelling can challenge one-dimensional perceptions of marginalized groups, they can also evoke defensive reactions in attempts to disavow guilt, anger, and anxiety over, for example, their own complicity in the structures that uphold oppression.

The study authors collected data from respondents who viewed a performance by AMKA, an African-Australian performance group. At the conclusion of each AMKA performance, spectators were asked to complete a survey regarding the meanings and experience of implicated witnessing for ostensibly white spectators.

Out of 116 responses, 34 audience members were categorized as having a white cultural background. Using thematic analysis to analyze the white respondents’ data, the authors identified two major emergent themes: understanding the counter-narrative in context and engaging in reflective practices.

The first theme refers to how audience members understood the larger social and political structures in which the counter-narrative performance occurred. Here, the white spectators interpreted the AMKA performance as commentary connected to current political realities, in contrast with those publicized by major media outlets and politicians.

The second major emergent theme was the engagement in reflective practice. As the critical psychologist Thomas Teo argues, dominant cultural groups can become aware of their unexamined privileges in the space of connection with people who occupy different social locations. Here, spectators reflected on experiences of discomfort related to confronting privilege, seeing what one has been “taught not to see,” and understanding theater as a prompt for action.

As the authors note, the sample of respondents was self-selected and thus potentially biased toward self-reflection and self-critique. Further, the white audience members’ interpretation of the AMKA performance as educational potentially reifies whiteness as a privileged identity. As the authors observe:

“Whiteness is re-enacted in the privilege of white audience members requiring constant reminders in order to remain attentive to inequalities from which they benefit. This positioning of ‘other as educator’ has implications for who has the responsibility to teach and to incentivize white people to take an interest in anti-racist efforts.”

This process of positioning African Australians as objects of knowledge for the white audiences as subjects and knowers reproduces inequalities in the relationship between vulnerable and privileged groups.

One “surprising finding” the authors describe is that the production quality of the performance was significant in determining receptivity of the counter-narrative. From this, they call for more research on production quality in performative counter-storytelling and conclude that the “integration of aesthetic excellence with expressions of lived experience” provides a powerful tool for enabling counter-possibilities of hope, resilience, and justice.

However, their participant research also reveals that the AMKA performance was “unusual” within the (usually white) space of the performance venue. It is unclear then to what extent the white audience’s receptivity to counter-narrative depended upon the narrative’s presentation within an otherwise culturally white space and how whiteness is linked to perceptions of “aesthetic excellence.”

While the authors conclude that community arts can encourage positions of responsible listening through targeted, reflective questions and intercommunal dialogue, more research is needed to unpack the role of whiteness in aesthetic judgment and receptivity to counter-narratives when, for example, they are presented and performed in non-white spaces or fail to reproduce tropes of aesthetic excellence.



Maxwell, C., and Sonn, C. (2021). “The Performative is Political: Using Counter-Storytelling through Theater to Create Spaces for Implicated Witnessing.” Am J Community Psychol, 0:1-14. DOI 10.1002/ajep.12493 (Link)

Previous articleSecure Attachment Is a Privilege by Rebecca Donaldson
Next articlePsychologists Attempt to Unify Different Approaches to Therapy
Jenny Logan
Jenny Logan is an Associate Faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and a PhD student in law at Birkbeck College, University of London. Jenny has worked as a special education teacher in the Bronx, New York, and more recently in fair housing and environmental justice movements in Portland, Oregon. A psychiatric survivor, she is interested in the political economy of child sexual abuse and psychiatry's role in the erasure of various forms of oppression.


  1. I am unable to comment on what is wrong with this “narrative” for arts and for all peoples. The same tired old garbage that keeps people apart rather than keeping people together. The same tired old stereotypes about “stigmatizing the mentally ill” except in this article couched in racial terms. Of course, one must ask, if “mental illness” truly exists does it discriminate on the basis of race? No, this will not bring understanding, but misunderstanding and there the results will not discriminate. It will damage all in some way, most likely unique to each individual, which will be too much for psychiatry, etc. the social scientists, etc. to bear? How sad that we can not cherish the uniqueness of each individual which transcends any racial differences and thus brings us the cooperative spirit of unity known as love. Thank you.

    Report comment

  2. “While performative counter-storytelling can challenge one-dimensional perceptions of marginalized groups, they can also evoke defensive reactions in attempts to disavow guilt, anger, and anxiety over, for example, their own complicity in the structures that uphold oppression.”

    This becomes clear almost the instant I begin speaking about these topics. It’s telling how very entrenched these notions are even among those who might stand to benefit from recognizing how they have themselves been oppressed and how they subconsciously participate in oppressing others.

    Thank you, Jenny. I have appreciated this recent series from you.

    Report comment

  3. “Here, spectators reflected on experiences of discomfort related to confronting privilege, seeing what one has been “taught not to see,” and understanding theater as a prompt for action.”

    Us artists do record history, which is what we were taught to do in art school. And I know first hand, it is discomforting for the paternalistic – to the point of being misogynistic – psychologist, psychiatric, and pastoral “partners,” when “what one has been ‘taught not to see,'” is visually documented.

    God forbid, write this quote, from the real Bible, in a painting. “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”

    To the contrary, what we’re “taught not to see” – and what both the psychological and psychiatric industries have been profiteering off of covering up for, I think over a century – is child abuse, pedophilia, and the apparently now rapidly expanding child sex trafficking industries.

    And, in as much as I do appreciate MiA for covering the systemic child abuse covering up crimes of the psychological and psychiatric industries. I do think the focus of a website, whose primary focus is on reforming psychiatry, should be on focusing on the psychiatric and psychological industries’ systemic child abuse and pedophilia covering up crimes, rather than on issues of racism. Since that’s just distracting people from the real “taught not to see” issue, at hand.

    Report comment

  4. Oppression: prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control or the state of the prolonged treatment or control. Many who post to this particular site would consider what I call psychiatry, etc. as a example of oppression. The treatment is definitely cruel and/or unjust and in way too many cases, it is prolonged. So, should we consider that those who have been “oppressed” by this type of system, we know as psychiatry, etc. be also subconsciously participating in oppressing others. Well, on the one hand the answer might be yes, but, that is only when you consider the key word, “subconsciously.” “Subconsciously” a definite psychological word with a history related to both Freud and Jung. But…when you think this through and accept the concept that the “oppressed” might be “subconsciously” oppressing, you basically accept all that psychiatry, etc. stands for… This is rather like when you make a new charge on your credit card, you basically accepting the new and higher interest rates. Now, I realize that the word “oppression” can be extended to so many other areas of human and social interaction. But, the gist is as soon as you believe that you are a victim of oppression and thus subconsciously oppressing, you unfortunately and automatically accept the “belief system” of those you claim are are causing your oppression. This is why the cycle of oppression appears to continue. I say “appears” because the appearance is usually a false appearance. People are not necessarily oppressed or even oppressing others. People can be abused, terrorized, threatened, tortured, tormented, tyrannized and a whole host of awful things, but when thinks of oneself as oppressed, they immediately give the power to those they believe has oppressed them and in turn, they just give away their power. No one wins with this kind of thinking and no good system is reformed or evil system abolished, including psychiatry, etc. amongst others. Thank you.

    Report comment

  5. A very interesting article. I am white, and until I had an experience with psychiatry, I had an abstract sympathy for victims of racism and other forms of systemic discrimination, but now I realized that I did not really feel their pain. The way my daughter and I were treated when my daughter was hospitalized – I could not believe this was possible in the US. So, when it’s race on top of a psychiatric diagnosis, it seems to be the worst discrimination possible. Now, some of you may be tired of this, but I here is again an open letter that I invite you all to sign:
    Those with relevant degrees, would you also sign this petition:–o2F0K9cGVV_E3ifP87mnlqEANiqeg/edit

    Report comment