How a Bronx Theater Uses the Avant-Garde to Teach Everyday Activism
A recent study revealed that nearly half of people between the ages of 13 and 22 have experienced online harassment. Of those surveyed, one-third did nothing when they saw someone else being bullied.
It’s an issue the members of the historically Latino Pregones Theater in the South Bronx, New York, saw in their community. So they wrote a play about it—and not just any play. They used a tradition of avant-garde theater to make sure that audience members leave better prepared to take action when they see cyber-bullying take place in their lives.
The play is part of a program called “Pregones Emotions,” a blend of traditional theater, improv, and audience participation that the group started performing with local middle schools in 2006.
Jorge Merced, the associate artistic director of Pregones, says the program gives kids an opportunity to talk about issues they struggle with and teaches them they have the power to change some of those situations.
This style of community theater was inspired by the Brazilian director and writer Augusto Boal, who founded the Theatre of the Oppressed, a set of interactive performance techniques designed to maximize the impact of theatrical work in creating social change.
“One of the things that Boal said to us is the methodology he was trying to put forth is really a rehearsal for action,” said Merced. “The aim is not to find an ideal solution, but to come up with new ways of solving problems as a community, and understanding that you’re not alone in that.”
YES! reached out to Merced to talk to him about Pregones’ middle school program and how theater can help students better understand their world.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Araz Hachadourian: What is Pregones Emotions, and what sorts of projects have been in the works recently?
Jorge Merced: One thing we do is the forum theater projects, which discuss pressing social issues. The format is based on the work of Augusto Boal, the Brazilian theater expert, who created a framework for participation in the arts called Theatre of the Oppressed.
I had the fortune of working with Boal back in the ’90s in Brazil and Paris, so I was immersed in all the methodology. Then I brought it back to our company in the Bronx and we adapted it.
Back then we were dealing with AIDS prevention and education. It was very successful; we created these short plays that could be done in a hospital or church basement. Basically, we stop a story at the moment of crisis and ask the audience to provide solutions for the character they think is the most oppressed.
We build off the principle that it’s important for us to take charge of our own lives and communities and not expect others to do it for us. That’s part of the practice of activism.
We did that for many years on our main stage theater. Then in 2006 we were able to find support for a series of workshops at Bronx Middle School 331 with funding from the Youth Department of Justice. So we spent a summer doing theater games and workshops and listening to what the issues were. That’s when this group of young people began to talk about about how they understand themselves through the world of texting and mobile technology.
So then our ensemble came back to the theater with that information created this play called “Texting 4 Life.”
Hachadourian: What is the play about?
Merced: It tells the story of two middle school students: Shalia and her boyfriend Jason. He constantly texts her to see where she is and it gets out of hand—he becomes really controlling. One night when they’re texting, she tells him she’s excited to take a trip to the Dominican Republic to visit her father and mentions she bought a new bikini. He asks her to send him a photo of her in the swimsuit. She’s hesitant at first but she does it. The next day they have a big fight and break up.
While they’re going through the breakup, the boyfriend sends the picture of her in the bikini to the entire school, and she finds out. There is a big confrontation in the school yard. That’s when we stop the play.
The story we heard from students was that this incident really happened and the girl wanted to commit suicide. But we didn’t want to take it to that point. We stop at the confrontation and then ask the audience to talk about what’s happening. Little by little, they start unpacking what they just saw.
We ask them their opinion of the situation. Who is the one experiencing social oppression? And then we ask them what they would do to stop it.
Once they all identify the one character, we say “The rules are that we have to change the situation through the voice of the most oppressed character.” What can Shalia do to change things? We ask the students to come up and play a part of Shalia, and show everyone what they think she can do to improve her situation.
The teachers are always amazed at how students go from saying “I don’t want to see this” to being on the edge of their seats and wanting to jump up and do something about the injustice.
Hachadourian: How do you explain oppression to middle-schoolers?
Merced: Kids associate the issue of oppression with depression. It takes a little bit of navigating to understand the difference. Sometimes the most oppressed character can be depressed, but it’s not necessarily about feelings—it’s about the circumstances that surround someone. Are they being heard? Are they being treated fairly?
Hachadourian: In all the topics you have covered, what has moved you the most?
Merced: There’s that initial moment when an audience member comes up and I can see it in their face— they’re thinking “What did I get myself into?” That’s what happens in life, I think, when you decide to take an action like joining a movement, participating in a demonstration, or raising your voice in some other way. There’s an initial moment where you go, “Damn, what I do now?”
What I love is what happens after that. People forget their fear because the issues are so important and they really start to take ownership and to try and figure out how to get out of that oppressive situation.
Hachadourian: What do you hope the participants walk away with?
Merced: I hope people walk out knowing that we are responsible for taking action. I hope people feel active toward their life and toward society in a way that they weren’t before.
Activists are not just a certain kind of individual. Activism has many ways of taking place in a person’s life. We should all be active as opposed to just staying silent. Taking a stand is not as lonely as many people think.
I’m hoping that’s the kind of spirit they walk out with, at least for a moment.