What is the power and place of storytelling? For Aimee Suzara, this was one of the central questions to be explored as an Artist-Investigator during Cal Shakes’ 2015-2016 Season.
AYPAL is a youth development organization whose mission is to empower Oakland’s low-income Asian & Pacific Islander immigrant and refugee families to be leaders for neighborhood change. Filipino-American poet, playwright, and performer Aimee Suzara teamed up with AYPAL, working with youth to build and perform guerrilla theater addressing the issues most important to them in preparation for AYPAL’s 18th Annual May Arts Festival, a day of cultural resistance against gentrification, racism, and young people’s oppression.
Watch below to hear more from Suzara about how young people writing their own stories helps them carve out their own spaces in the world, why we need to see non-Western stories as universal, and the crucial role the artist plays in social movements.
Click here to see a video from the 2016 May Arts Festival: Reclaiming our Roots, including interviews with Suzara, the performers, and excerpts of the performances.
Full Transcript of Video here:
AIMEE: Cultural workers are performing the labor of moving hearts and mind through acts of culture.
AYPAL: The Artist-Investigator Program at California Shakespeare Theater investigates how the tools of theater artists can be applied outside the rehearsal room.
AIMEE: If we go back 15 or so years, I was, I got heavily involved with an environmental justice organization in the Philippines. And through that work, what was discovered was that, while you know, the scientists and a lot of the people, it was a military toxics campaign. So it was basically at the U.S. military bases in the Philippines. I learned that through the arts, I was able to contribute something that the scientists and the environmental technicians and all those folks and policy people weren’t quite capturing. And that movements need artists, and that artists are not just sort of, like, supplementary but actually are often the carriers of the message and able to move hearts and minds in ways that other aspects of movements aren’t.
So, I think with this project, my first instinct was to be more of a fly on the wall and observe what was going on before I came in. So, I felt that I was really blessed in a way because I had worked with AYPAL in like, early iterations since my history of working with community-based art and arts education went back to, what, like I said, to the turn of the 2000s. And, I had some familiarity with who they were.
I’m coming in representing, like, a theatre organization, and representing being this person who’s kind of studying and also, like, supporting. But also that, that they came first. Their work and their voices were the first thing that anybody heard. So when I came in, I felt like I was really sort of plugging in, fitting in where I could and reminded them that, I’m coming to support with tools, but a lot of the tools I have already.
I take a…renewed belief and conviction in the power of storytelling, with theater being, you know, the primary, I think, setting, container, and set of, of techniques and tools.
A typical day would involve me coming in. The youth would lead, lead a workshop. So, it would be something like gender…sexual orientation. They did one on white supremacy. Like, these terms and trying to understand these big -isms. So, I was always, I was trying to make sure we covered, you know, everything from, like I said, them leading stuff, to me kind of giving, like, early lessons on, what is theater, what is guerilla theater, what are the aspects of it, what are the different roles that you might participate in. Let’s give you some roles. Let’s do some writing, let’s do some editing. And then let’s get on our feet. And so, they got a chance to see that this is really, like, about how they’re going to… interrupt and…and uh…carve spaces… and that this is going to be what they want it to be.
So, it was like, each day was actually different, other than, with the exception of some kind of collective warm-up.
To me, the most important thing was the story coming out. It’s the story being staged. They’re going to laugh, and sometimes laughter is a way to deal with, with that this is a hard topic.
I take like a, like a profound inspiration, you know, sense of inspiration because their leadership blew me away, their sense of leadership, that young people… you know, we all say like, “young people are the future” and all of that, but like, they were really the present, like they were leading. And I’ve worked with youth before, but I think that there was a way that especially for this, these communities and these young people who don’t have as much of a visibility…to see them in leadership was powerful.
I saw people step up, you know, young people step up. Suddenly, they memorized their scripts. Or…suddenly, you know, they put their foot in it and they really did it.
The transformation happened. You know, they were right there with them. And it didn’t matter whether they laughed or messed up, ‘cause they were really paying attention to, even to serious topics.
And that was probably the most important impact, was, the people at the May Arts Festival, which was the young people and their families and other people in the community, having just visceral response and support.
The fortunate thing about having performances, public performances, you know, we’re talking about, you know, violence, and we’re talking about folks seeing their own friends killed and shot and this kind of thing is happening for these young Southeast Asian kids, they come in laughing and joking and all of that, but unless you really are paying attention and asking them what’s going on, you may not realize that they’re experiencing a lot of violence and struggle and, you know…challenges, like…even just coming to school or even showing up. One of the things was they showed up. And if they show up, then…you know…that’s just as important as what they, they perform.
There was one young man who… I wasn’t sure if he was going to show up till the day of the show. And also he hasn’t practiced as much because he wasn’t there, but he showed up, he did his piece and it was one of the most, like, profound and I think pivotal moments of the show because he told his personal story, and he’d gone through so much loss and so much, like, depression and, and he just told it.
Southeast Asian youth are still, are still marginalized, and I think that I really feel more convicted around trying to support these voices, you know.
A lot of these young people, like…their own families came from escaping war-torn situations, um…and…some lived on refugee camps and stuff like that. And a lot of these, the characters that they wrote turned out to be people that they knew.
There was like a figure, like an older sibling, that’s like, trying to, who was in gangs, and who’s trying to, like, pull them out of that. And then there’s like, the parents who work too hard, are not available and maybe, and there was actually some like, abuse topics too. And I noticed these coming up in several skits.
There was always this element of family like, of family coming together. As a Filipino-American, who comes from a, um, you know a different Southeast Asian group, on a surface level I think that it could be seen as, “Oh, we’re, you know, grouping somebody with somebody um…and she must, they must know something about each other’s stories.” And I think on some level, we do, we look similarly, we look like we could be family, and on the other hand, our stories are very unique and vastly different. You know, I think the tendency in the United States and even the very well, the most well-intentioned, culturally well-intentioned or progressive people would say like, “Oh yeah, I saw an Asian thing, or I went to an Asian play, and I went to a Latino play, I went to a women, a people of color this” or whatever, and I think we all sometimes contribute to that, but within that…it’s very important that we don’t think we checked off the box of Asian, or we checked off the box of, you know, Latino or whatever, because…within each of those groups there’s so much variety and so many different stories that…we need to know.
We tend to see more like, you know, European-based Western and American stories as universal, but a lot of people don’t experience those as universal, actually. And so why not have the stories and the theatrical work in the center that are currently seen as marginalized eventually we have to see those as universal as well or as, just as centralized and necessary.
It’s very important to put people of color, women of color, LGBT folks, disabled folks, people with various identities in these leadership roles as the kind of role that I’m in.
We don’t see enough people in leadership who either actually connect with the communities that they might want to forward…but also there is something about being an insider-outsider.
I’m using that term because there’s a way that seeing myself reflected in the community who’s performing and doing theater, the theater, was very important and transformative for me, but also them seeing someone that looks like me it looks a little more like them is very important and as an educator.
I don’t see enough of myself in leadership roles, and when I do, the impacts are…possibly haven’t been measured and captured enough, but…are, are very powerful, you know, in terms of really making a larger change.
We don’t necessarily write these stories only for each other, that these are actually… necessary for everyone to see and learn and support.