The Foreign Exchange (New Harlem Productions and SummerWorks) 2012 SummerWorks Review

The Foreign Exchange – a one-off event at the SummerWorks Performance Bar – isn’t really theatre but a panel discussion more akin to the Tent Talks at this year’s Fringe Festival. But The Foreign Exchange departed from these in several important ways, and offered one of the most challenging, empowering experiences at this year’s SummerWorks festival.

The Foreign Exchange differed most noticeably from standard-issue panel discussions in that all conversation topics were generated by members of the audience. By tweeting or texting in questions, audience members were able to steer the panel, and each other, into new, sometimes taboo territory.

More crucially, audience members were encouraged to engage with the panel as peers, not as supplicants seeking knowledge from industry insiders. The result is a spirited, healthy, hopefully empowering debate – one that took many humorous turns and paused at least once for slow dancing. The panel was varied and candid in expressing their thoughts and experiences.

Most people would probably agree that an event like The Foreign Exchange isn’t an end in itself, but a means to something more worthwhile. In discussing questions like “can culture be imposed on you?” or “is it racist to be attracted to only one particular ethnic group?” we ultimately begin to discuss the type of society we envision for ourselves and others.

The Foreign Exchange is engineered to elicit a mix of conflicting emotions – as it should. Looking around the room, just about everyone was uncomfortable at one point or another. But nearly everyone was engaged, interested, and responding to the discussion. A definite highlight of the SummerWorks festival this year, here’s hoping the conversation continues, with ever more liveliness, in the years ahead.