Ashley Smiley Reflects on Dramaturgy for RYSE’s Richmond Renaissance
[Image Description: A flyer for the play Richmond Renaissance. The background of the flyer is teal, with red, orange and white lettering. Two orange figures stand across from each other — the man on the left is wearing a red suit jacket and fedora and playing a saxophone and the woman on the right is wearing a teal dress and standing at a microphone. The flyer has writing advertising the show, including “RYSE Presents… Richmond Renaissance A Play By Richmond Youth. Save the Date May 6th and 7th from 6 – 8 PM, At the El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater.” A sepia tone film strip goes across the bottom of the flyer showing four photographs of young people dressed in clothes from the forties.]
In December of 2017 I was approached by the Performing Arts Program Coordinator at RYSE, Molly Raynor, to see if I would be interested in doing dramaturgy for their upcoming production titled Richmond Renaissance. I knew of RYSE from my time working the teen poetry slams and seeing the rise of Donté Clark so I was super excited to work with them on creating their new piece. At first, I thought that the piece was going to be about their creating a renaissance in Richmond in their current time, but Richmond Renaissance was actually going to be a love-letter in musical form from the youth of Richmond to the richness of their city’s history.
[Image Description: Five young black people stand in a row in front of paisley red and gold wallpaper, looking into the camera. The two men who are furthest to either side wear fedoras, dress pants and button-down shirts; the three women in the center wear dresses and either a headwrap or a flower in their hair.]
I have never worked with young people so clear in their decisions about the art they are trying to make until I began working with DeAndre, the playwright of Richmond Renaissance. This young man was dedicated to telling this story with honest and loving authenticity. DeAndre was interested in creating a piece that truly put the audience in 1940s North Richmond while also speaking about themes that the audience can see playing out in their lives currently. My work focused on finding out what Richmond “was like” in the 1940s. What/who were they listening to? What was their slang? Where were they coming from and why?
[Image Description: A young woman in a white lace blouse stands turned towards her right, singing into a wooden spoon as if it is a microphone. She wears bright red lipstick and a red flower in her hair.]
[Image Description: A young man stands with his right hand over his heart, looking down over his right shoulder. He wears a light brown suit jacket with a white shirt, green vest and yellow plaid tie.]
While it was awesome to do this work in support of young artists, I personally enjoyed learning about the richness of the city’s history. Richmond has a bad reputation for being a center of scandal and violence, so to learn that it was a hub for Black artists and musicians, a place where Black people could own property and create a world of their own, was enlightening and allowed me a deeper view into Richmond’s heart and soul. DeAndre was dedicated to knowing what exactly people wore, what major artists would be filtering through the jukebox at AnnaBelle’s, and what the particular structure of the songs during that time were. We also unpacked the textured language of Richmond in the 1940s, how the lullabic accent of the South paired with the sing-songiness of the Midwest merged together to give Richmond residents a sound and vernacular of their own.
[Image Description: A young woman stands in front of a standing microphone, looking toward the camera with both arms raised. She is wearing a pink dress, an off-white fur coat, purple gloves and a black hair wrap.]
Along with all of that though, in crafting the script DeAndre wanted to layer in the issues he saw his community dealing with in real time: predatory gangsters, family secrets, PTSD/the effects of war, and more. Furthermore, he really wanted to focus on the role of the Black woman in the creation of Richmond’s culture. The play was set at AnnaBelle’s juke joint with a savvy and motherly lead character named AnnaBelle who not only helped her employees and family members navigate through their various trials and tribulations but also navigated through her own trials, not with angelic grace but grit, perseverance and love. So too it was with the other characters and the very flawed, human, loving, growing realness of Black folks trying to obtain success and maintain community despite being tested every day.
[Image Description: An excerpt of Richmond Renaissance at the 2017 Life is Living Festival. A young woman is on an outdoor stage beneath a leafy tree. She is wearing a black long sleeved blouse with a brightly patterned blue half-apron and red lipstick. She is clapping her hands together and looking off to her right.]
Overall, I left the experience extremely grateful and inspired by the art that is being created by young people in the Bay Area. Often, we are informed that the next generation is at risk, that they are subpar in some way and that they lack true artistic vision and discipline. To those people I would say, watch Richmond Renaissance, work with RYSE. If they do, they will be promptly shown that the next generation of artists is disciplined, focused, socially conscious and extremely talented.
[Image Description: Nine people, part of the cast and creative team, stand in two rows in front of a white background, looking toward the camera. They are dressed in clothing from the forties and many are smiling.]
[Image Description: a close up of Smiley, who is looking directly into the camera. Smiley is wearing a black shirt and black blazer, silver dangling earrings and pink lipstick, and has closely cropped hair.]
Ashley Smiley aka Smiley is a proud San Francisco native who currently serves as the Youth Theatre Programs Director for Community Works West, a restorative justice-based nonprofit that works with justice-impacted youth and their parents. Smiley is currently curating the first annual CWW Youth Theatre Festival, which will be occurring April 18th-20th, 2019 at Z Below in San Francisco. Smiley is also an active member of the Campo Santo performance collective and acts as a freelance writer, director, stage manager, and production manager.
Cal Shakes supported Smiley’s dramaturgy on Richmond Renaissance as part of our partnership with RYSE Youth Center.
How can theater help us find and be all of ourselves? For Artist-Investigators Cat Brooks and Anna Maria Luera, this was the question driving their work with Rysing Women during the 2015-2016 season.
Rysing Womyn works with the women that society is prone to throw away: the angry, the rageful, the sad, the traumatized, the oppressed, the exploited. Artivist and co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project Cat Brooks and actor and theatre facilitator Anna Maria Luera worked with young women of color in the project to find refuge in creativity and artistic expression.
Watch below to hear Brooks and Luera discuss creating and holding space where young women can share their stories, find joy and healing in laughter, and “be all of themsel[ves].”
Want to see more from Rysing Women? Check out Slaying Our Inner Demons, an experimental visual essay based on one of the poems that came out of this Artist-Investigator project, and Cat Brooks’ essay on the project here.
Full Transcript of Video:
CAT: Community–based art has always been a part of my life and understanding the power of theater to heal, theater saved my life quite literally. I would not be here, had I not found the theater.
RYSING WOMYN: The Artist-Investigator Program at California Shakespeare Theater investigates how the tools of theater artists can be applied outside the rehearsal room.
Cal Shakes 2015-2016 Artist-Investigators Cat Brooks and Anna Maria Luera helped young women of color find refuge in creativity and artistic expression through the Rysing Womyn project.
ANNA MARIA: There’s a joy spread in being like what can happen, what is the impacts that these young women can make on the world, in their work, that we’re facilitating and really creating space for them to be all of themself, through art, through political education, through healing.
CAT: We would get there, and the girls would slowly roll in. Sloooowly roll in. And uh, food, like Anna was talking about, so we got to the point where we just realized that they had to eat, every time, so. We’d eat, and then Anna talked earlier about ritual being very important. So we had the ritual of checking in. Going around and just honoring whatever the girls are walking in with. And sometimes the girls would go into very deep detail about what they were feeling. And sometimes it was, “I’m cool,” right, or “I don’t feel like it” and that’s sort of the check–in. And then a meditation, a grounding and a meditation, a getting in the space. And then, some sort of vocal warm up, breathing, exercise to move in that direction and then it varied. So then it was either political education and improv and journaling or it was improv and journaling and then doing the, you know, reading. We used poems a lot, as a way to get them used to reading words and comfortable with putting emotion on it. And we would do, you know, give different direction about how to read it. We did that a lot. And then we would close out with “Pass the Pulse,” which was my favorite piece of it, and then,and every time the girls would hug each other, tell each other they love them, hug us.
ANNA: They were beautiful, they are so beautiful.
CAT: And then off they would go.
ANNA MARIA: Many of our girls, most of our girls, if not all of them had some very basic needs not met. And then we said, come to this theater program, right, and I believe it’s a necessity ‘cause they tell their stories and who they are, but those things, if they’re not working in connection with meeting basic needs, then the part where they don’t have food, they don’t have housing, they are in and out of foster care. All of these things will overthrow your whole program.
CAT: Things we didn’t know, right, or think about: the demographic that we were working with, transient, right…not time-bound. The idea initially was that they would improv their wayto writing their own pieces, and then there were so many shifts in girls, and timing, and when we’re going to perform, and then we weren’t going to perform. There was one period we went from having, like, 15 girls, right, to 8, to 2, right, for the extended period of time. So balancing the realities of Black girls from low-income communities, who have gone through some things that I can’t even imagine the weight of. I’m going to cry. So balancing them bringing all of themselves and all of their experience into the space with trying to incorporate theater discipline and like, being on time, or grounding yourself before you begin the work, or not talking when somebody else is doing a monologue, or commitment to being at rehearsal on time and for the duration, things that…you know, asactors, that’s how we live our lives, was challenging. But we never stopped trying.
ANNA MARIA: Yeah, yeah.
CAT: There was one young woman, she would need to leave early. It was always, it was always, something, right, with her.
ANNA MARIA: We had to talk her into everything.
CAT: Oh my God. I love her, and…
ANNA MARIA: And she showed up all the time.
CAT: And she would show up every week and then there was this one time and she legit had to leave early. It was like a legit thing but it was closer to performance, and I was irritated. She bounced out, right, and then like 2 minutes later the door opened again, and she came back and gave this very thorough explanation about why she needed to go, apologized basically for interrupting the process, assured us that she was going to go home and do the work she needed to do, and she would see us next week and then she left, and I was like…
ANNA MARIA: She would’ve never done that a year ago.
CAT: I was like, “Did that just happen, that just happened.”
ANNA MARIA: That amount of accountability that this young women who’s what, 16/17, adults don’t have that.
CAT: Because at first the mandate was you had to perform when we first started, and then, again, things we learned, right, that for a bunch of reasons that just was not going to work. The re-trigger, re-traumatization of the young women, and so we put it out there. We were like, here’s your option, ‘cause we want you to write the piece and so it was an option whether you decided you want to do your own piece or if we could hire some actors that could perform your pieces for you. And a lot more girls thought that they were going to have end up having to act. I think just knowing that they had the safety net of the actors, allowed them to write the piece. Right? It was like “OK, so I’m not really going to have to get up and perform this, right, in front of an audience? Someone else will do it? OK, I’m gonna finish the piece,” but at the end the majority of the girls who remained in the cohort, they wanted to read their, they wanted to perform their own stuff. The other learning I think around the come as you are, what the fullness of that really means, right, and so, I would never go to work high. Right, I can never show up to rehearsal high or drunk or whatever else or go out before the show and, right…but it was more important for them to be in the space and allow them to make the decision about their sobriety in that space and let the power of the work that they were doing in the theater, for them to choose it, than us going you have to show up this way and that way and this way, otherwise you can’t be in the space. And that was not always comfortable, right…
ANNA MARIA: But they couldn’t come in the space and not participate at all…and so that was very clear, and if they didn’t participate they didn’t get paid that day.
CAT: There’s that feeling that you get when you walk into a theater, right, as an actor. When you walk into a theater space and it’s empty and there’s the stage and the work’s getting ready to start. You know and then the lights and the sound, there’s just…And it was really important for us that they had that experience of doing theater on a stage with the lights and a tech and the audience and they got that, right.
ANNA MARIA: And we really I think also tried to incorporate the theater exercise to match with the political education. So if we played a…if we like, or ritual. So if we played a imaginary objects game, later on they would bring another imaginary object that meant something to them into an altar space. If they did statues and it could be like statues in a place in Hawaii that their practicing on, just fun stuff, but later on they would bring those kinds of activities into a space where we talk about police brutality. So it’s like really using those activities, theater activities to forward the vision of what we want for the young people and to also bring them to a space that’s like, we know it feels weird and sometimes we feel weird and it’s okay. And so when we gather the pieces there’s a bunch of themes that came up. Family themes, a lot about mothers, and some of them were mothers, violence, the political themes that came through that were beautiful. It is very easy in this work to say, here are all the hard stories and everybody can feel sorry for you, but being clear that our young ladies are bad asses and they’re warriors and survivors and they laugh and joke and make fun of each other and hold each other in space so in seeing, like the fullness of our group, I wanted their stories to really be about that. They started also doing things that were about them. One young woman comes in and all she says in her check–in is, “this is like the worst day of my life” and she starts crying, and all the young women surrounded her, put their hands on her, and hugged her and held her. We didn’t start, we didn’t do that. They did that on their own and so when you see them care for each other like that…
CAT: In ways that have been modeled for them, right.
ANNA MARIA: Yes.
CAT: It was a practice.
ANNA MARIA: One of the young women who had kind of started off really strong and then had a bunch of stuff happen to her and then came, was coming back, she was back there with them and like going through the pieces and they were like giving her notes and telling her say it like this and those are the things where we go, not only are they down for each other, but they’re down for the work and they’re down for themselves to do the best possible work that they can do for each other. Young people and our young women, we want them to come and feel safe and taken care of. So when you’re going into a space that can be extremely difficult, when young people are in gratitude like that, for what you have to offer them, for how you love them, because we’re in gratitude for them, and that back and forth is really like, we would leave all the time and be like, man, I’m so glad I came.
How can healing be a form of story sharing? Looking at the intersections of ritual and performance, Artist-Investigators Meghan Elizabeth and SK Kerastas (now the Artistic Producer at Cal Shakes!) combined their backgrounds in theater and plant medicine to offer a curriculum called SPIRIT MOVES to Amber’s Group, a weekly support group for trans women of color funded by the San Francisco Department of Health’s Transgender Health Services.
Bringing together grounding, meditation, and plant healing over a shared space of food and ritual, SPIRIT MOVES supplemented the group’s purpose as a space for self-expression and healing.
Watch below to hear how Meghan and SK talk about the power of passing down the stories and knowledge that come from surviving, and from healing ourselves.
Want to see photos from the workshops? Check out more from SPIRIT MOVES here.
Full Transcript of Video:
SK: Hold on. Can we just start over?
INTERVIEWER: Oh yes, you can.
SK: Hi, I’m SK Kerastas.
MEGHAN: Hi, I’m Meghan Elizabeth.
SK: And we…
SPIRIT MOVES. The Artist-Investigator Program at California Shakespeare Theater investigates how the tools of theater artists can be applied outside the rehearsal room.
Cal Shakes 2015-2016 Artist-Investigators Meghan Elizabeth and SK Kerastas combined theater and plant medicine to support the self-expression and healing of Amber’s Group, a trans women of color support group funded by the San Francisco Department of Health’s Transgender Health Services.
SK: I ran a queer youth theater program in Chicago for 5 years, and that’s actually how we know each other, we met collaborating. Meghan was working at an organization called the Broadway Youth Center, and I would go…I think we collaborated on some workshops and did a couple of exchanges where the young people were working with…met each other. And that was kind of my angle and my focus and my passion.
MEGHAN: And I’m a former youth organizer…and I’ve done a lot of youth programming, different age ranges. And I’m also a current herbal student, or aspiring herbalist. My work was, has really been about merging sort of like, my political organizing field with myself as a healer. Well, we’re really exploring this concept as healing as a method of story sharing. And looking at how folks can share their stories differently when they’re operating through a space of healing ritual and… more specifically, ritual as performance. We did a lot of background work in things like, this is how you tincture a plant, this is how you make salve out of lavender. And through like, those practices of learning how to make medicine, we got to explore how people like to use medicine, and what sort of like, rituals or spiritual components that they bring to the table when they’re healing themselves.
SK: Well first of all, we didn’t really do any programming for…5 weeks…maybe?
MEGHAN: No, no, no, no…
SK: 4 weeks?
MEGHAN: More like 4 weeks.
SK: 4 weeks.
SK: We would just go, and share space. The group we were working with was a like, support group, that meets every week for trans women of color. We did four different Fridays of just…you know, chilling, checking in, just like everyone else did, getting a lot of advice, and uh…and eating. Sharing food together. And I think a lot of listening, too. We were really, in addition to relationship building in that time we were also like, okay, here’s the vibe of this place, here’s like… You know, it’s really different when you’re working with people who’ve like, shown up for rehearsal, vs. folks who are like, coming to a space to eat and get some basic needs met. You know, Meghan would like, open up the session with like, a nice grounding, usually just like some…guided meditation real quick, and then we would do, kind of like, half focused on medicine and half focused on like, some artistic practice. Meghan would introduce the plant, talk about its healing properties, and the group would like, make something together.
MEGHAN: The energetics of the plants would definitely shift the energetics of the story sharing, and I think that that happened…like a physiological medicine way and in like thatif you huff enough lavender, your body will start to calm down. Or if you drink enough chamomile tea, you will, your cells will start to feel rejuvenated. And also in more of just like a, sort of magical way too in that like, if we did a practice of trying to do a movement that embodied what we associated the healing properties of rose to be, over and over again, those movements and those stories and those properties, would come out in how they chose to talk about their lives.
SK: Yeah that jasmine day was like…
MEGHAN: That got a little wild. Lavender.
SK: Oh my god, you remember! Really incorporating a lot of the elements and like, what people received from the plants into a performative space.
MEGHAN: Well then, we would close usually with…they would go into check-in.
SK: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
MEGHAN: Which was also really insightful to see the ways in which people were checking in before our program would start vs. after they had been…after they had made some medicine and talked about healing value, talked about…healing rituals and then would check in again, their check-ins would shift. Drastically, sometimes.
SK: Yeah. I just remember, you know like the… people really connecting to what the plants were offering too. Like on the rose day we were talking about sort of the…harshness….as well as like, the harshness of the thorns as well as the softness of the petals of love. It’s like, the duality of love, right? And we checked in for like an hour that day, like everyone had a story, you know what I mean? Everyone wanted to talk about their ex, like everyone was just, you know…sharing in this really beautiful way.
MEGHAN: For example, one of the women in the program invited us, on the, I think our second to last week
SK: Oh, yeah…
MEGHAN: …of the program, to come see her garden. She had a plot, as well as a chicken coop in a community garden space, and so, there was also this thing, there was like this discovery that happened with her where it was just like, oh she already had so much information about plants, and…was already using plants to provide like, a healing ritual for her already. Probably about after week 9…I think is when realized that…it was time to do something more intimate. So, we started working, as SK was saying, with four women, and we met an hour before, their main drop-in group….and would just like focus on them and their specific stories and the way they wanted to tell it and…if their stories related to any of the plants we had been learning about. With the plan of…we built a large altar space and…we made little healing bouquets for everyone in the group. We set up the chairs…and the women would come in, sort of one by one and…perform, like, a ritual storytelling and…also of plant honoring. So they would pick their specific plant up off of a larger altar. Tell their story while holding the plant, introduce the plant to the group, and then sit down and light a candle for the plant. And then…at the end…they ended their stories by blowing out the candles together. It was very like, spell-like. Their stories were like prayers in this way.
SK: And the women in the audience were like, crying when they were asking questions. Which was like, something that was part of that culture, lots of like, affirmations to each other, you know? But…you could just like tell that the audience…who were their peers and family, you know, were like, really moved…Yeah…
MEGHAN: Maybe even just to see like, such a tenderness and…and respect given to those stories by like, you’re holding the flowers, you’re standing in front of us, you have the candle, you’re taking your time with the story. And it’s not even a story they hadn’t heard before, you know…but it was just such a difference of telling it in this way where you come in and you’re like, having a day and you’re like, “Girl, let me just tell you what you just happened to me, like, da-da-da-da vs. like…”
SK: And someone’s interrupting you, or whatever…
MEGHAN: Yeah. Yeah, totally.
SK: One participant, she was probably the oldest…
MEGHAN: She was probably the oldest, yeah.
SK: And you know, in group…like, I don’t think she ever said a word. She like never, you know…if, if she was pressed to check-in, she would say, “Things are going great” and you know…
MEGHAN: ”I’m fine…”
SK: ”I’m great, moving along.” But within this group, she just like, blossomed and was one of like, I would say —
MEGHAN: The strongest.
SK: Yeah! Like her story was consistent, she really took direction well, and um…yeah, you could just see her opening up through the process.
MEGHAN: I’m really…I feel hungry to work with an elder community again. I think…coming from the Midwest…I’ve never really had that much access to…a queer community over the age of…30, I mean…. To be able to spend my Friday nights with…my reflections, you know, with these like…these femme queers Black women was really special. And just like, absolutely…something that I…I didn’t even realize that I didn’t have access to until this group.
SK: We put in so much time to build relationships with these folks, right to…almost to the point where we’re like starting to become this stable presence in that space, only then to like, leave it so I think being like conscious of those…those dynamics at play and like…how can we….keep a good thing going, as well. It’s a beautiful thing to hear from people who’ve been through it. Like, over and over and over again, and have so much to say about how they survived and how they learned. They said we were always welcome.
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.
Clickhereto 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. Andthat 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 takelike 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 asthe 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.
With xenophobic extremism roiling through our country, Cal Shakes’ 2016 production of Othello intentionally explored the presence of Islamophobia in the play. But how could we ensure that a 400-year old work could speak to the lived experiences of Muslim Americans in the present? How could we confront our own assumptions and biases in telling a story about someone “othered” in a culturally-specific way that most of the creative team was not?
Cal Shakes partnered with the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California to better center community members directly impacted by the themes we sought to explore. The Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (ICCNC) provides space for the cultivation of ideas about Islam through art, culture, and education programs. This collaboration taught us more about how theater and community-based organizations can learn from each other, lift up each other’s work, and create social impact on the issues that matter most to our communities.
Othello Story Circle
Photo credit: Den Legaspi.
At the start of Othello‘s rehearsal process, Cal Shakes invited artists and cultural workers impacted by Islamophobia to gather at the ICCNC and share their stories. In a circle led by Assistant Director Denmo Ibrahim (featured earlier that season in Cal Shakes’ Much Ado About Nothing), participants discussed the personal impacts of Islamophobia, popular depictions of Muslim Americans, and more. In the second half of the circle, participants were invited to give Cal Shakes feedback on concepts for the production through an exchange with actor Aldo Billingslea (playing Othello) and Director and Cal Shakes Artist Director Eric Ting.
Photo credit: Den Legaspi.
Through our ICCNC partnership, community voices shaped what happened on our stage and revealed what’s at stake in the story we were telling. Key quotes from the story circle were featured in an art installation that audience members passed on the way into the theater. Story circle participants were invited to see the play and share feedback through previews and after opening.
Othello Story Circle art installation at the Bruns. Deep thanks to contributors Badreddine Assioua, Sabiha Basrai, Abdulrahim Harara, Mahsa Kashani, Sabereh Kashi, Zahra Noorbakhsh, Aidah Aliyah Rasheed, Amir Sulaiman, and others. Photo credit: LeeAnn Dowd.
“Othered in America” Civic Dialogue
Photo credit: Eric Ting.
After Othello finished its run at the Bruns, and before it toured the Bay, Cal Shakes continued the conversations started in the story circle and stoked by polarized audience reactions to the play with a civic dialogue hosted at the ICCNC. “Othered in America: A Conversation on Islamophobia in the U.S.” explored popular representations of Muslims, the impact of xenophobia on public discourse, and the role of arts practitioners in a time of heightened Islamophobia.
“Othered in America” was produced in partnership with IC3: Incubating Creativity, Community, and Culture, an artist-run series of project incubations for emerging Muslim American artists and cultural producers that result in public events for diverse, multicultural Bay Area audiences. Seventy-three people gathered at the ICCNC for the event, which featured participants from the story circle as well as guests engaging with Cal Shakes for the first time.
The night kicked off with a panel facilitated by Sabiha Basrai, co-coordinator of the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, in conversation with Sana Saeed, a producer at AJ+, and Abdulrahim Harara, an actor and activist. It continued with an open mic of performances curated by the Muslim Writers Collective , a grassroots initiative dedicated to promoting storytelling in the Muslim American community, the Bay Area chapter of which runs a monthly open mic at the ICCNC.
Photo credit: Eric Ting.
Cal Shakes’ Civic Dialogue Series seeks to explore the intersections between theater and civic practice. Check out recaps of our other 2016 Civic Dialogues:
Cal Shakes brought our partnership full circle by bringing Othello, shaped by our work with the ICCNC, to the ICCNC.
One hundred and twenty-five audience members came to the free, public performance, circling the actors in chairs and pews. Cal Shakes’ Othello typically featured a ten-minute talkback right before the end, at one of the play’s most climactic moments. At the ICCNC, this conversation extended to 16 minutes, as community voices eagerly shared about what they were seeing:
“I read the play 20 years ago and I didn’t understand Iago. I am sitting here watching now and seeing, it’s not just jealousy — it’s white supremacy. The racism. It’s these really basic themes that prevent us from seeing the larger issues.”
“There was so much anger around his position and Othello’s position — all of that came from a high level of anger and racism. He’s living in the white supremacist world and it just tears him apart.”
“His insecurities were exploited.”
“I didn’t see it as prejudice; I saw it as power hungry. Iago was so Trump-like to me.”
“I hated that Iago used the system to do all of that. The fact that it wasn’t a tragedy that Desdemona dies, but it became a tragedy when we see that she was wronged — that makes me so angry.”
“What struck me the most is the matter-a-fact nature of the racism. It’s only [mentioned] a few times by the racist characters themselves and then it’s just an everyday thing that’s going on. And Othello doesn’t acknowledge it. The dichotomy within him: here he is a general and at the same time he is helpless in love and has no control.”
“What strikes me is the actuality of this year: 1000 years ago, black men were lynched for just looking at a white woman.”
“I see the cross section of white supremacy and hatred. I saw the self destructive nature of white supremacy.”
Staging Othello at the ICCNC, in downtown Oakland, made the work more accessible to more of our East Bay community and revealed resonances that didn’t readily surface elsewhere; as our house manager noted, the term “white supremacy” hadn’t come up very often during previous talkbacks. Our actors remarked on how special it felt to perform in such a sacred space that held so much beauty.
Cal Shakes deeply thanks Raeshma Razni and the ICCNC for saying “yes” to collaborating deeply. We are grateful for the opportunity to listen, learn from, and uplift the voices of community members facing systemic marginalization in our society.
Choreographer and theatermaker Krista DeNio explored how veterans can use performance to heal traumatic grief as a 2014-2015 Cal Shakes Artist-Investigator with Berkeley Food and Housing Project. In the fall of 2016, DeNio returned to Berkeley Food and Housing Project, spending eight weeks with residents of their North County Women’s Shelter. She talks about the process and the piece the women shared at a community holiday party, titled We Will Survive:
Making “We Will Survive” at the Berkeley Food and Housing Project was an intergenerational, community-building experience. Working with these women and children was an incredible gift and yet another demonstration of the power inherent to storytelling and theater making.
The women came together for this group as cohabitants of the women’s shelter. Some were already building community with one another. Others had never met or interacted much, since they lived on different floors or had been there for different lengths of time.
Our group varied tremendously in age, race and background from a young Mexican- American immigrant family including a daughter age 4, daughter age 17, and mother in her 30s to another young African-American mother in her 30s, with a son age 3, and a baby on the way to a young Caucasian mother and her son, age 6 and several other women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.
We shared about our greatest experiences of JOY and GRIEF through writing prompts, theater improvisation exercises, and vocal and movement practices to open up our creative wellspring. We excavated some of our deep grief, while celebrating some our greatest triumphs, in order to source our literal and metaphoric power. Together we wove a written and performative tapestry to share out with the greater community.
SAMPLE LESSON PLAN:
7-7:15 — Arrival, introductions, food
7:15-7:30 — Conversations in Pairs Name Place of birth One thing that brings you greatest joy One thing that brings you sadness
7:30-7:40 — Who has a song to teach us?
7:45-8 — Movement warm-up
8-8:10 — Writing prompts (5 minutes each) Describe one of your greatest griefs in this life Describe one of your greatest joys
8:10-8:20 — Share writing
8:20-8:30 — Underline phrases, images, words that stand out in your writing
8:30-8:45 — Gestural phrases made from those words One gestural phrase for Grief One gestural phrase for Joy
8:45 — Closing
Over the course of the class these women began to support one another’s processes through reflection and commonality. They shared joy surrounding motherhood and shared grief surrounding not being mothered and other challenges that brought them together in this time and place. They began to care-take one another and one another’s children, to community build in subtle and powerful ways, as a part of the weekly group gathering. For me and I think for these women—the culminating performance piece was a powerful act, in which each of them could bring forward aspects of incredible life journeys, individual wisdom, strength and clarity—but even greater than that act, I believe, was the community built in the process. I give thanks to each of these brave and powerful women and children for their willingness to engage in the radical act of being seen.
PERFORMANCE EXCERPT:(names changed to respect privacy)
Liz: My greatest joy? Well, I think getting my nursing license. In 1982. It’s been 35 years. I worked in San Francisco, San Jose, as a Hospice Nurse. I’ve worked in many places. Being compassionate. I am a Care-taker. My biggest grief? Losing my independence. I’ve been up here 16 months. But I’m on the mend. I’m taking care of myself. Taking care of others.
Susan: Even here… She makes sure the house and kitchen are clean. She helps with the kids.
Anne: She has helped me time after time. She knows what’s wrong with me before anybody else and she helps me. She takes care of everyone.
ALL: She’s a doer, a care-taker, a real keeper.
Gloria: Para mi, la familia es lo mas importante! Mis hijos, mi esposo.
Krista: When I asked Gloria more about her family, she began to cry. Her parents are still in Mexico. Her husband is also homeless here. The whole family works hard, every day…. It wasn’t easy getting here from Mexico either.
Gloria: Todo comenzó con dos aviones allí y luego tuve que cruzar la frontera. Las cosas que me estaban poniendo de vuelta eran el miedo y el estrés y la presión de cruzar. Pero las cosas que me ayudaron fueron mi fe, mi religión y que quería traer a nuestra familia de nuevo juntos.
Marcela: It all started with two airplanes there and then she had to cross the border. The things that were putting her back were fear and stress and the pressure to cross over. But the things that helped her were her faith, her religion and that she wanted to bring our family back together.
Mira: I have watched her go to work and come home and do her family’s laundry and getting all the kids going off to school. She comes home from working all night, and does all these things. Just watching another single mom do all these things lets me know I can continue too. I am proud of you, Gloria. You keep me going!
ALL: You keep us all going!
Krista DeNio is an interdisciplinary choreographer, director, performer, writer and educator, and Artistic Director of kd>>moving ground. She is committed to engaging performance work through interdisciplinary collaboration that bridges performance work, education and activism toward a socially just world. Krista is a House Artist at CounterPulse. As a lecturer, she has worked most recently with U.C. Berkeley’s Theater, Dance and Performance Studies department, and as a visiting professor and collaborator in Empathy Lab, a course developed in collaboration with Anthropology professor Lochlann Jain, at Stanford University. Krista teaches dance and performance making throughout the Bay Area and country. She received her BA in Dance/Dramatic Art and Interdisciplinary Studies Field Major, Development and Human Rights from U.C. Berkeley and her MFA in Theater: Contemporary Performance from Naropa University.
With the Rysing Womyn project, Cal Shakes 2015-2016 Artist-Investigators Cat Brooks (top right) and Anna Maria Luera (bottom right) supported young women of color to find their voice, unearth their stories, and tell them in their own words and on their own terms.
How can the tools of theater artists be applied outside the rehearsal room? That was the question driving Cal Shakes’ 2015-16 Artist-Investigator Program. Read this essay from Cal Shakes Artist-Investigator Cat Brooks who, along with her co-facilitator Anna Maria Luera, helped young women of color find refuge in creativity and artistic expression through the Rysing Womyn project:
My entire life has been dedicated to art and activism. As a racially-mixed child from a broken home full of various substances—I could have ended up anywhere. But in 4th grade, fate landed me in the classroom of Ms. Barbara Gerhardt. I was angry. I was troubled. I was a disturbance in the classroom. Rather than throw me away—as happens to so many Black and Brown young people in our schools—Ms. Gerhardt found a way to channel all of that misdirected energy into something else. She directed me toward a local theater conservatory. My course was set.
The theater became my refuge. It literally saved my life.
Simultaneously, I was growing up amidst living room conversations about war, sexism and race in a racist, segregated town that let me know I was a “nigger” at every turn. I watched my mother get arrested at actions; sacrifice her life to the struggle. My mother taught me how to fight back, to value resistance.
What this has meant for my life is a deep commitment to the arts, an overstanding of their power to change, heal and save lives, and a passion for the intersection of art and social change.
Rysing Womyn is the manifestation of that intersection.
Rysing Womyn works with the women that society is prone to throw away: the angry, the rageful, the sad, the traumatized, the oppressed, the exploited.
Anna and I had a lot of preconceived notions about what teaching these classes would be like. We entered into the process with a set schedule, a plan and a performance date. We learned quickly that was a mistake. Working in this environment, with these girls, meant being flexible and responsive to the sometimes highly dramatic and emotional situations which arose. In addition to teaching theater, we needed to be a shoulder to cry on, or an ear to listen.
Sometimes, the entire class became about one young woman who simply needed someone to hear her. Other times, we taught classes where just one girl showed up, or where we had more girls than we knew what to do with!
The Rysing Womyn curriculum uses political education as a tool of empowerment and theater exercises and journaling as tools of creative expression to help girls and womyn find–and utilize–their voice. We offer a megaphone to amplify voices that society drowns out with judgment and condemnation. We unearth their stories and provide a platform to tell them. We arm young womyn with the truth—about their history, strengths and power, interrupting the dialogue of “you are not enough” or “you don’t belong.
Class consists of grounding and meditation, followed by an introduction to a political or artistic figure they can relate to. We have covered everyone from Audre Lorde to Assata Shakur. We want them to see themselves in these giants and know that they can aspire to be their own versions of these womyn.
Following the grounding, we read a poem or listen to a song. We analyze the lyrics and words, identifying the pieces that resonate. We have spent a lot of time with Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird. When have they felt like a caged bird? What does freedom feel like? That is the writing prompt. Don’t think. Just write. Don’t judge. Just write.
Next, it is time to get up and do improv exercises in which the young womyn create scenes related to their writing, performing for each other. We have a segment on police brutality where we learned about Natasha McKenna, Guadalupe Ochoa and Kayla Moore—women who look like them who were murdered by police. There is often no room for women in society’s conversations about police brutality. While Black and Brown women–especially these women–know they are walking targets for law enforcement, there is little room for them to sit in their fears and share their experiences.
The group closes with a check-out. The work can be traumatic, triggering feelings, fears and flashbacks. We find ourselves asking: How are you? Who needs extra time? How can we support the internal work you were so courageous to push through today?
Each class ends with a bonding exercise–their favorite is “pass the pulse.” A circle of strong Black womyn, holding hands passing the energy around and around and around.
It’s pure beauty when these young womyn walk into the room every week. Laughing. Cussing. Fussing. Playing. Ready to work. Happy for this refuge.
It has been an incredible journey with ups and downs. There is one young woman, the youngest in the group. I only know bits and pieces of her story. I remember her first day. She wore her rage like a fashion statement. Long, red nails. A perfectly painted pout. She didn’t want to be there. She had already done these exercises. She didn’t want to talk about her feelings.
But she came back.
Little by little, she came out of her shell. Writing. Performing. Wearing her pride now like a fashion statement. Showing us the cute white sweater and perfectly ripped jeans she bought that day with her case manager.
Then one day—she went there. Out of the blue, this guarded girl suddenly became an open book. Pouring out her story, gritty detail after gritty detail, after painful moment. It was a breakthrough; we had earned her trust.
We were not prepared for the impact it would have on her. We’re actors and teachers. We hadn’t thought about the fact that she had to go home with all of that, to an environment that didn’t support her and people that couldn’t be bothered. The next week she showed up, triggered. The thought of being in class triggered her. She didn’t want to go there again. She just wanted to watch. But we are not there to watch. Everyone has to participate so everyone feels safe. We gave her three choices: She could go home. She could do the writing prompt at home or she could stay and push through. She chose to stay. We knew she could. She produced some of the most beautiful work that day. More importantly, she learned that she didn’t have to run away from her darkness. She could work through it. With writing. With acting. With her sisters.
Over the last few months, we’ve seen the young women bloom. The same women, who at the beginning of the program didn’t even want to participate, have turned into the young ladies who make sure to never miss a class. Young women who walk into class angry and righteously frustrated show up and work hard not just for themselves, but for their sisters.
I have been blessed to experience young women who write and read some of the most beautiful, raw and heartbreaking words I have ever heard.“You wouldn’t know cause you don’t walk in my shoes. You don’t know my pain. So f@$$ that ‘this is what I would do’. How would you feel if he took his gun and aimed it at you?”
It is an honor to work with these womyn. It demands we show up to every class with our best selves, our whole selves. Is it working? Will theater and writing save their lives? Will it give enough meaning to their lives to change their existence? We don’t know. All we know is for two hours a week, they have somewhere safe to go where they are guaranteed to be seen, heard and loved.
In Rysing Womyn, they are making good decisions, experiencing healthy relationships with other women, earning money in a safe and productive way, and learning about people and events and history they never would have learned about in school. That’s got to count for something. It has to make a difference. I think sometimes of my old 4th grade teacher, and the difference she made in my own life—just by nudging and encouraging my creative side. Hopefully, we are their Ms. Gerhardt.
Cat Brooks is an artivist and mother whose spent her life working on many social justice issues. She is the co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, co-chair of ONYX Organizing Committee, an active member of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the interim director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.
At the age of 8, Brooks found her voice on the stage as an actress and in her journals as a writer. In her early 20s, she lived in Los Angeles working as an actress and communications professional. Since then, her life has been about impacting inequitable social dynamics through communications, organizing, advocacy, public speaking, and art.
The 9th Annual Life is Living Festival in West Oakland celebrated the 50-year legacy of the Black Panther Party, who used arts and culture paired with organized activism to fuel social change. Cal Shakes, Youth Speaks, and Campo Santo honored this legacy on the festival’s second annual theater stage, where we co-curated a day of locally-produced art addressing the theme “A Claim to Space: Building and Sustaining Home in an Age of Displacement.” In a time when one in four Oaklanders is at risk for displacement, how can art be used to “serve the people, body and soul,” in the tradition of the Panthers’ free breakfast program?
Our line-up offered a range of answers:
Campo Santo’s “H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually),” a new work from Star Finch, explored connection, family, survival, and womanhood in a future where states are being auctioned off to the highest bidder and Google and Apple have extended their empire into space.
“Fairytale,” written by the youth of Cal Shakes’ community partner RYSE Center, challenged audiences to cultivate self-love and communal healing in its moving critique of gender stereotypes, teen dating violence, and rape culture, told through music, poetry, and dance.
The BoomShake Performance Core pounded drums and spoke the names of black women lost to police violence in “The Streets Are Free,” a participatory, intergenerational “drumsical” about conditions faced by Oakland’s low-income communities of color and inspired by a true story of Venezuelan children fighting for a safe place to play outside in their barrio.
In “On the Hill,” directed by Cal Shakes 2014-2015 Artist-Investigator Paul Flores, youth of color living in gentrifying neighborhoods in San Francisco responded to the murder of Alex Nieto by SFPD and implored their neighbors to see beyond stereotypes.
“Don’t Take The Long Way Home” followed a taxi driver telling tales through a changing San Francisco, performed with text and music by Carlos Aguirre.
The Rysing Womyn project, facilitated by Cal Shakes 2015-2016 Artist-Investigators Cat Brooks and Anna Maria Luera, shared monologues and poetry about breaking through chains of societal oppression with “In Shallow Waters We Touch the Sky.”
“Mama at Twilight: Death by Love,” a new work from Cal Shakes 2014-2015 Artist-Investigator Dr. Ayodele Nzinga and the Lower Bottom Playaz, examined love within a family impacted by mass incarceration, religious taboos, and poor access to health care.
Through community interviews, original music, and physical exploration―and a deep dive into Oakland’s past―The Bonfire Makers (featuring Cal Shakes Artistic Engagement Coordinator Tierra Allen) imagined what the future of Oakland could look like if we disrupt current cycles of oppression with “PLACE to LAND (an oakland love story).”
Cal Shakes ’15-’16 Artist-Investigators Meghan Elizabeth and SK Kerastas (pictured right) combined theater and plant medicine to support the self-expression and healing of women at Transgender Health Services.
How can the tools of theater artists be applied outside the rehearsal room? That was the question driving Cal Shakes’ 2015-16 Artist-Investigator Program. We invited five artists to pair with three nonprofits and collaboratively design participatory art-making projects to advance each group’s mission.
Cal Shakes Artist-Investigators SK Kerastas and Meghan Elizabeth worked with Amber’s Group, a weekly support group for trans women of color funded by the San Francisco Department of Health’s Transgender Health Services. To supplement the group’s purpose as a space for self-expression and healing, Kerastas and Elizabeth combined their backgrounds in theater and plant medicine to offer a curriculum called SPIRIT MOVES.
Offering (a) Balm
Amber’s Group provides a critical, stable source of support for the women it serves, so Kerastas and Elizabeth worked to complement, rather than alter, the program’s structure with their offerings:
“On our best days, our curriculum blended smoothly with their standard program format of Check-in, Meal, Hang out. Sometimes we would do programming in between check-in and meal, sometimes we would go before check-in, and sometimes we would go after the check-in and meal. It changed week by week according to the energy of the group and how Amber chose to navigate that energy.”
Sample SPIRIT MOVES Workshop: Lavender
GROUP CHECK IN: Amber’s Group’s normal programming.
Introduction to Lavender and its healing and energetic properties.
Participants share related responses and personal stories.
Collectively create lavender balm.
PERFORMANCE WORK (led by Kerastas):
Name + physical gesture activity
Add vocal element to gesture
Pass the gesture
Create individual gestures for Lavender
Call and response with Lavender gestures
Connect the individual gestures to make one movement sequence
Reflection: How did that feel? How can we use this dance moving forward?
Can we create gestures for our stories? How do we connect them?
Distribute individual lavender balm tins for women to take home.
GROUP DINNER SERVED: Amber’s Group’s normal programming.
This Cal Shakes Artist-Investigator project culminated in a performative healing ceremony combining elements of plant-based healing, altar-making, personal storytelling, and movement, which a small group of women presented to their wider community at Amber’s Group. During the five weeks leading up to the culmination, Kerastas and Elizabeth focused on storytelling and developing the performance with the four women interested in forming the ceremony’s ensemble.
Photo Credit: Sonjhai Meggette/Esoteric Images and Namu Williams.
How can the tools of theater artists be applied outside the rehearsal room? That was the question driving Cal Shakes’ 2015-16 Artist-Investigator Program. We invited five artists to pair with three nonprofits and collaboratively design participatory art-making projects to advance each group’s mission.
Filipino-American poet, playwright, and performer Aimee Suzara teamed up with AYPAL, 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. In preparation for AYPAL’s 18th Annual May Arts Festival, a day of cultural resistance against gentrification, racism, and young people’s oppression, Suzara worked with youth to build and perform guerilla theater addressing the issues most important to them.
Preparing for the May Arts Festival
On a typical afternoon at AYPAL, youth leaders opened the day with a group check-in, including names, gender pronouns, group agreement affirmations, and workshops addressing social justice. Suzara would then offer a warm-up using breathing, vocal exercises, and gestures led by her and other youth.
Next, the youth split into breakout groups preparing different styles of performance for the festival, and the theater group moved into a separate space to focus on the theme of the day: body awareness, character, or another performance fundamental. Suzara led this group in additional theater and movement-derived warm-ups, scaffolded to build collaboration, sensitivity, and acting skills between partners and within the ensemble. Following this, she engaged the youth in writing exercises, focusing on character, observation, or another skill, and then a more formal drama lesson, like what constitutes a scene or the possibilities of guerilla theater. The day would close with writing assignments given to the youth, who were divided into lead and supporting writers, a recap of the day, and a formal closing.
“Unity and Community” through Southeast Asian Youth Performance
AYPAL youth performing guerilla theater at the May Arts Festival. Photo credit: Sonjhai Meggette/Esoteric Images.
This Artist-Investigator Project culminated with the youth’s performance of their original guerilla theater pieces at the May Arts Festival, themed “Reclaiming Our Roots” and held for the first time that year in a public space at San Antonio Park in East Oakland. The pieces explored LGBT identity, labor, being the children and grandchildren of refugees, and other issues impacting Southeast Asian (largely Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong) families. They also offered visions for change, transformation, and youth leadership.