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Theater Troupe Tackles Social Justice Issues

HOST INTRO: Theater lovers talk about the powerful ability of the medium to create empathy with the audience. Now a New York based theatre troupe – called the Theater of the Oppressed – is using theater to spark social change. The troupe creates plays based on the lived experiences of its actors–who are some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. The audience is New York lawmakers. My co-host Taylor Wizner visits an impromptu theater in Flushing on opening night.

WIZNER 1: The play is in the spacious lobby of the Queens Museum. It’s a Sunday afternoon. About 100 people watch a performance on an open stage.

A scene begins with a homeless immigrant picking up cans at a park. He sees another homeless man and asks if he knows a nearby shelter that’s safe for undocumented immigrants. They speak in Spanish.

Man 1: I don’t have a home. Do you know a place where we can stay tonight?

Man 2: There’s a lot of places but they’re not adequate. They’re not very adequate. And without documents? No they’re dangerous. It’s less dangerous to be in the street because they look for us in the street.

A woman jogs by and says ‘what’s this’ to the immigrants sleeping there.

Woman: Hey, what are these scary men doing sleeping in my park.

WIZNER 2: She approaches police officers nearby, and asks them to remove the men from the park which is near her expensive apartment. The officers arrest the two men for trespassing.

Woman: Do you know how much rent I pay? This is insulting. I’m feeling so unsafe. What do I do, what do I do? Police officers? Hello?

The first man pleads guilty to the crime, paying a $200 fee and is given one month probation. But what happens next is a surprise. As he leaves the court, an undercover immigration officer starts to make small talk, and asks him where he’s from.  arrest him for illegal entry in the U.S.

Officer: They’re lucky they let you go, you know. Look, where are you from?

Man: I’m from Venezuela. And I came in 1980 and I crossed a few borders.

Officer: Wait because there’s a surprise. We’re actually from ICE and we’re going to deport you.

WIZNER 3: After the scene is finished one of the actors, who goes by the name Eric, says the play is similar to his real life. He used to be homeless and says police have treated him unfairly because he is Latino. He only speaks Spanish, so he asks another actor to translate.

Eric–Spanish-English translation 1

A scene specifically living with you know picking up cans, gathering money that way living as a homeless person in New York City. That’s his experience.

WIZNER 4: And being able to perform his story, he hopes others will be able do the same.

Eric–Spanish-English translation 2

A lot of people are ashamed to say their story and that’s why they’re not able to share that way.

WIZNER 5: The opportunity to share is part of the mission of The Theatre of the Oppressed NYC. This month the theatre is holding their 5th annual Legislative Theatre Festival. They are performing for many elected officials in the audience. This show partnered with the AIDS Center of Queens County Troupe. The group is made up of recent immigrants from Colombia and Mexico. Each performance has a theme, and for this performance it’s immigration. The show is divided into three sections–or in theatre lingo, three acts. The first scene is a performance. And the second… is an audience re-enactment.

Act 2 begins. One woman from the audience steps onto the stage. They are going to do the scene again from the perspective of jogger in park who reports the homeless people. In the actors place, she says just minding her business.

Audience member 1: Ok I guess whatever. I’ll also going to mind my business for a minute and I guess I’ll try to donate to local organizations.

WIZNER 7: Maybe it’s not the most constructive suggestion. But Elizabeth Morgan, who is a member of the troupe, tries to spark a conversation from the scene.

Morgan 1: I was just going to say that it’s an option for people who don’t feel intimidated by homeless people of color but there are plenty of people in this city who do.

WIZNER 8: Now it’s time for the final scene, Act 3. Audience members write down on notecards an injustice they saw in the play, and what can be done policy-wise to change it. Rebecca Golfman is a member of the troupe. She flips through notecards looking for the most popular ideas.

Golfman 1: They have a few factors they are looking at. And that is how innovative is this idea, how practical is it. How popular is it?

WIZNER 9: One of the ideas that seems viable is a possible law that would prevent ICE officials from entering the courts. An Assistant Attorney General Justin Deabler is on stage. He says this is something California already does. Golfman asks him what the next step would look like for New York.

Golfman 2: What would that look like?

Deabler 1: I think the first would be talking to the state agencies that administer the court system about what kinds of actions they could issue to the federal government keeping the officers out of the court system.

WIZNER 12: Golfman says one way to keep the proposed policies on track is to keep the audience involved in the issues.

Golfman 3: The thing about that process is that we almost always need the public to get involved also and put on public pressure. And say I actually want this passed. This is my story and I want you to move this through.

WIZNER 13: For lawyer Jennie Kim, this is her third time attending a Theatre of the Oppressed performance. She says it was moving to see immigrant actors tell their own stories.

Kim 1: There is no other way for poor people, poor immigrants who are facing horrible issues in their countries and … come to our country and face not only same thing but pulling them backwards. That’s just heartbreaking.

WIZNER 14: Kim says she will definitely stay in touch with the Theater. She’s already on an email list, she says. And it updates her on the stages of proposed policies. And it updates her they need someone to volunteer, she says she’ll be by their side. 

Taylor Wizner, Columbia Radio News.


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