The Latinx Theatre Project began with 13 students in the UMass, Spanish 397P: The Latinx Theatre class, and approximately 30 First Generation students from Holyoke middle and high School. The link was Dr. Kristie Soares, who saw the vision of our final collaborative piece months before we even met, and Julie and James, the First Generation instructors. To get to that point we needed to pass through several pedagogies and obstacles.
To do social justice work on a creative platform we needed to get to a place where we trusted each other enough to support, question, and correct each other. We began this process by participating in exercises that explored our personal identities, and our group identities. These are common activities in many social justice workshops and trainings that reveal new perspectives and understanding each time. At the beginning of every class for the first weeks, we would say our names and our pronouns. Speaking our existence into the world, speaking our presence in the room and hearing each other was invaluable, especially in a predominantly white institution that doesn’t prioritize the needs of students of color or of queer students. We agreed that our space, whether in the UMass campus or in Holyoke, would be that space. It would be that rare place, where we can express ourselves fully without anxiety or fear, a place where we can express our fears, joys anxieties accomplishments.
We then began to explore the different ways we offer and receive feedback. At first I did not see the connection between various ways of receiving feedback until later in the semester. This activity was a simple quiz, and the sum of the each letter answer corresponded with a different feedback style. Receiving feedback is something that we constantly deal with families, friends, professors and sometimes-unsolicited sharers. Understanding each other’s feedback styles was important in this experience because we were discussing large institutional issues with deep historical connections and having these conversations is not easy. People make mistakes and our responsibility to each other was to teach and help each other grow. In addition, the way we offer feedback and receive feedback is also influenced by our cultures. Therefore it was important for us to explore and reflect on our feedback style so we can understand ourselves better. We read articles regarding shame that really transformed our current perception of shame. Often shame is something to shy away from because it is the emotion after we make mistakes or wrong someone. However, shame isn’t something we should shy a way from, it should be something we lean into. The discomfort we feel can lead to moments of learning and change. This is ultimately what we were challenging ourselves to do, in discussions of race, gender, sexuality, and oppression, to lean into that discomfort and change our conceptions and understandings. To change the world we first must change. Understanding our feedback styles, our identities, and changing our perception of shame and service as a group helped us build a community that was respectful and would take responsibility of each other by discussing and correcting each other when we made mistakes.
In addition we discussed our presence in Holyoke with First Generation. We were college students entering a local community, which is consisted of predominantly people of color and bringing our jargon and expectations into their community. Our physical presence would add a layer of complexity to our relationship. We discussed that our role wasn’t to go into a low-income community to be saviors, we were simply there to experience together. We had a lot to learn, coming from an institution that doesn’t have strong ties to local towns and cities.
We began our process by studying our first pedagogy, Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed using the book Games for Actors and Non-actors. We participated in both Image Theater and Forum Theatre as outlined by Boal. Boal’s belief was that theatre was a rehearsal for the revolution. This form of theatre was in response to political violence, disappearings and injustice in Brazil. Boal’s exercises were the means which we explored oppressions in our lives today. Through Image Theatre we sculpted our bodies to create images of oppression without words. It was imperative that this exercise was silent. Body language is important way to communicate and overcome language barriers because we can physically shape the body to fit an emotion or an action that is understood around the world.
After each image, we discussed it. Different people would take turns sculpting others in the class to portray their image of the oppression. This exercise showed the varying perceptions of the particular oppression in our group, based on our lived experiences. With each image we would discuss what was sculpted, what did it evoke and what did it mean. After we would deconstruct each image of oppression to try and reach a realistic solution. At the end of each image the group would need to agree whether the final image solved the problem in the context of our world today. We were using a communal mind and energy to think through these ideas. We also practiced Forum Theater where we created a situation and attempted different solutions by replacing the protagonist, their words and actions. Boal’s said that theatre is a way of understanding our everyday lives and it is a rehearsal for the revolution. We were practicing actions that we would plausibly take in each situation. The addition of our speech enabled us to practice different ways of performance and reaction to oppressions. And again as a group, we needed to come to an agreement.
In our study of Nuyorican Poetry we combined body, speech, and rhythm. We participated in writing and performing exercises. Though poetry and spoken word are vocal arts, they are first rooted in the body and it is through the convergence of both that makes it effective. We participated in group writing exercises, for example, we wrote groups poems in response to the prompt, 'home feels likes'. We each have different lived experiences of home, but there were themes familiar of emotions, and memories that resonated through us all. More importantly, we were comfortable enough to trust the process and share our writing with each other without fear of judgment and ridicule. We were also fortunate enough to Magdalena Gomez, a renowned poet and playwright, and co-founder of Teatro V!da.
Our last pedagogy was Teatro Campesino, a theater practice that arose from Chicanx farmworkers. This theater practice was for the people and it was by the people. We participated in the process of writing our own actos in order to portray a transformative experience in a character that is then able to liberate themselves and their people.
Throughout the semester, two main events strengthened our connection to each other and to the work we were doing. The first was the issue at Holyoke High School where a young Latina woman faced excessive criticism from her peers, teachers, administration and larger community for expressing her thoughts and ideas through spoken word. Her piece was found to be controversial, but to us it was inspiring and refreshing. We discussed the issue numerous times and we even strategized how to express our support for her and her art. This type of issue is what we were rehearsing for, and we were ready. This issue affected many of the high school students fromFirst Generation and for that reason alone it was important to give it our attention. We had created a community and a space that prioritized each other’s ideas and opinions and that was the only way we were able to process and plan our reaction to this issue.
The second event was our showcase at the end of the semester. As a community we were able to create an hour-long show. On December 8, 2017, we stood in circle holding hands waiting for our showcase to start. We were about to step on stage and share our experience together, with our family, friends, and professors. It was a magical moment, where all the discussions, voting, ideas, practices, and work we did came together. To echo the words of James, a First Generation instructor, it wasn’t by accident that we reached that point. It was a result of years of hard work, of college students, and First Generation members who came before us and struggled. It was a result of numerous people and their hard work that created that space in Peck Middle School where we met every week and danced, played, talked, laughed and created beautiful art.
There is no perfect recipe for creating an ensemble but from our experience, in Spanish 397P, we needed the particular group of individuals involved, we needed to trust the process, and work together. We needed to do daily check-ins. We needed to stand in circles, and we needed to sit in circles. We needed to argue with each other. We needed to dance together, cry together, and laugh together. Ultimately, we needed to value each other, and our experiences. This experience is invaluable and irreplaceable. It has reinforced the power and energy that exists in theater and performance art, the power to transform and shine light into the world.
Janet Wangoe is a senior biology student who is also pursuing a certificate in Multicultural Theatre Practice at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has been involved in the production of We are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly known as Southwest Africa from the German Sudwestafrika Between the years 1884-1915, by Jackie Sibblies Drury. As well Refugee by Milan Dragicevich.