A cop bumped into Tamara Williams, frisked her, mocked her, then issued her a citation for resisting arrest — a traumatic incident from last summer that became a dramatic one this weekend. It was one of the scenes in Save The Drama, a show about the problems facing LGBTQ homeless youth, the latest presentation by Theatre of the Oppressed NYC. In a challenging and ultimately satisfying piece of casting, Williams herself portrayed one of the harassing cops.
For more than two years, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, which likes to call itself TONYC, has been partnering with community organizations to create theater that aims for political and social change. Among the theater troupes that have resulted. the most visible is Concrete Justice, formerly called the Jan Hus Homeless Theatre Troupe, which has published a collection of poems and photographs entitled “Street Poetry.” Other TONYC troupes have been made up of HIV+ homeless New Yorkers, undocumented immigrants and refugees, and New York City public school students and teachers. The TONYC motto is “Inspiration. Collaboration. Transformation,” and they follow the techniques developed by the late Brazilian theater artist Augusto Boal, the founder of the original Theatre of the Oppressed in the 1960’s.
And so the audiences of Save the Drama did not just watch a performance by ensembles of young people from three community organizations, The Hetrick-Martin Institute, The Ali Forney Center and The Door, presenting scenes based on their real-life experiences — that scene of “stop and frisk” humiliation, as well as scenes about cyber-bullying, about a gay kid coming out to parents and getting kicked out of the house, about the difficulty of getting emergency housing and the dangers of living on the street. Audience members were also invited to the stage to dramatize ways that the victimized character in each scene could have responded. And then we were all asked to write on white index cards our ideas for new legislation or changes in public policy that would address each problem. A “legal support team,” three members of local advocacy groups, then sorted through the cards, and conferred with the “legislative participants” — the only local legislator to show up
was Jimmy Van Bramer, a member of the New York City Council, but also in attendance was Samuel E Miller, an official with the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. Van Bramer then presented three proposals for policy changes, which included support for the Community Safety Act, a package of bills currently before the City Council that aims to stop discriminatory “stop and frisk” police practices. We were all given three colored index cards, and asked to vote on the proposals — green if we approved, red if we disapproved, yellow if we had doubts. The auditorium at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, the West Village church where the festival took place, became a sea of green.
The experience was bracing, and thought-provoking, in several ways. It is a tonic in this time of theatergoers’ Tony obsession to contemplate TONYC. How many theatergoers leave Kinky Boots aware of the Community Safety Act? On the other hand, how many people left Save The Drama feeling above all entertained? Theater of the Oppressed NYC founding artistic director Katy Rubin, who trained directly with Boal shortly before he died, readily concedes that the process leading up to the show and the political engagement after the show were both more important than the show itself.
Jimmy Van Bramer, an openly gay legislator who is also chair of the council’s Cultural Affairs Committee, sees a benefit for the performers. “Even if no legislation comes out of this process,” he told me afterwards, “LBGT youth are on stage telling their stories, getting support, building self-esteem.”
This is true. But how much more would these performers have benefitted if the art of it was taken as seriously as the politics? While Theatre of the Oppressed NYC shows have received copious publicity in advance, none of its shows have been reviewed, and it seems obvious why: They resist criticism because the basic stagecraft does not rise to a level that would invite it.
This is not how theater of the oppressed has to be: Boal himself was a consummate theater artist who had studied at Columbia with John Gassner, teacher of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. There was clear evidence of the raw talent of the members of the Show The Drama ensembles (most of whom are teenagers, though not necessarily either gay or homeless) in the improvisatory scenes in which the audience members came up with new approaches to which the actors playing the problem-causing characters then had to respond in character.
I know of no other local theater company besides Theatre of the Oppressed NYC that focuses with such clarity and conviction not just on politics but on problem-solving and practical political results. But there are several in which real people tell their stories on stage to glorious effect. For example, The Arts Effect, an acting school for young girls, produced Facebook Me, a work presented at the 2011 New York International Fringe Festival written and performed by girls ages 13 to 15. For 20 years, Ping Chong & Company has been presenting various versions of “Undesireable Elements,” in which people, most of whom had no prior experience as performers, tell their own stories on stage. Ping Chong is invited into a community, chooses the “cast members” after interviews, listens to their stories, creates a script based on those stories, and then trains them to perform their own stories. It is a process that results in first-rate theater that IS frequently reviewed. The communities of Undesireable Elements — examples include the disabled, survivors of sexual abuse, refugees — are on the margins of society, as oppressed as any in the Theatre of the Oppressed.