Performance Theater and the Politics of Inclusion

by Jose Torres-Tama

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

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(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Those who try to separate theater from politics try to lead us into error – and this is a political attitude. 

–Augusto Boal,

from Theater of the Oppressed

My mentors in the performance art field are Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Rhodessa Jones, Tim Miller, Karen Finley, and Holly Hughes. These intrepid performance practitioners compose a fearless fabulous five whose work has inspired me in a variety of ways, and I am fortunate to have experienced each of them performing live.

I have collaborated with Guillermo and his famed Pocha Nostra troupe in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Berlin, and annually, I have an opportunity to see Rhodessa at the National Performance Network gatherings. I’ve had the honor of sharing a stage with her, and we performed on the same evening at a theater festival organized by Linda Paris-Bailey and Carpetbag Theatre in Knoxville.

Tim and I stay in contact over our peripatetic ways, and on a number of occasions, we have been presented during the same season at variety of colleges and art centers. After the storm, I met Holly while at residency at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and she invited me to lecture on multidisciplinary performance practices to her art class.

I have never met Karen Finley personally, but seeing her early piece, Constant State of Desire, was seminal to the forging of my aesthetic. Her rage against the country’s patriarchal condoning of violence against women inspired my outrage against the demonization of men of color, black and brown, in media and film, and how their disproportionate numbers fill our national jails for the prison industrial complex.

Why are so many of our hermanos/young brothers, our black and brown men, incarcerated in the so-called land of the free?

Are we committing that much more crime, or are we punished more severely to keep us ensnared in a bankrupt judicial system because our growing numbers represent a “threat” to the lingering legacy of white supremacy, which still haunts a country with a multiracial president that is always referred to as the black Barack Obama? That has to be the longest question I have posed and possibly a run-on inquiry at that.

While their approaches to performance and experimental theater vary, from Guillermo to Tim to Rhodessa, the common thread in the stage works of these performance artists is that they often dare to speak the unspoken. Also, they speak from their bodies about the Eurocentric conditions and restrictions imposed upon them as a Latino male, a gay man, and a woman of color. For me, this is of utmost importance in creating work that resonates with the concerns that we face nationally and locally, and vital to forging a theater that speaks of a people’s pain.

In the Latin American tradition, the poet, visual, and theater artist bears a social responsibility, a mythic duty, to document and articulate the people’s struggle, la lucha de la gente, when they are denied effective means to have their voices heard in their fight against oppression and their many oppressors.

In my stage work, I explore the underbelly of the American Dream mythology and the Latino immigrant experience. I was born in Ecuador, South America, and while I am a naturalized U.S. citizen, I consider myself a bilingual native of the Hemispheric Americas.

I arrived in the United States at the age of seven in 1968, and at no other time since, have I witnessed such persecution and vilification of Latino immigrants. Today’s anti-immigrant hysteria is a result of the Orwellian nightmare George Bush’s regime launched in the wake of 9/11.

“Justice became torture”, “peace became war”, and “patriotism became silence”. Naomi Klein calls it the “shock doctrine”. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a ten-year war built on lies, spawning an unending “war on terror”. Then, the son of an African immigrant and Kansas woman becomes the first multiracial president of the U.S., seducing us with his “Hope” and “Change” mantra to re-steer the “Bushwacked” nation.

But no one imagines an African immigrant’s son deporting record millions of immigrants. While some change has occurred, we are hopelessly caught between Barack and the GOP hard place on Immigration Reform, and Obama drives a secret drone war beyond meta-fiction. I voted for Mr. Obama in 2012, but as a performative act, I held my nose when I pressed that button. I say this because it was a tragic resolve. The truth is that Mr. Obama has starved the national Latino community on Immigration Reform in his first term, that any crumbs he throws our way, has most yelling “Ave, Maria!”

As part of my job description through performance, I consider myself a bearer of difficult truths, and while Immigration Reform is being debated finally on Capitol Hill, the reality is that undocumented immigrants or their more common right-wing vilification as “illegal aliens” have been made the political scapegoats for everything that is wrong with “America” today, including its growing unemployment, unaffordable health care system, ineffective public schools, decaying infrastructure, and crumbling economy.

My role as a theater artist and writer is to debunk these hysterical myths.

Since the storm, I have been trying to bring attention to one of the most neglected truths of the reconstruction of New Orleans, and that is that the recovery was aided by thousands of Latino immigrant workers, many of whom were cheated out of their promised pay by ruthless local and national contractors.

They were brutalized by local police; languished in jails without due legal process; and subjected to the most abhorrent working and living conditions imaginable. Some became indentured servants within hotels in the French Quarter. Many were deported by Immigration Agents after they finished many a construction job.

Many millions in unpaid wages have been stolen from immigrant workers because of their tenuous status.

My post-Katrina solo, The Cone of Uncertainty, which debuted at Highways Performance Space in November of 2005, was the first stage piece to explore this unspoken reality of the reconstruction. With the support of Director Leo Garcia and a National Performance Network residency, it was staged at Highways two months after I escaped the social storm that precipitated after the natural tempest. Three days after the levees breached, I escaped  on a stolen school bus rescuing African American families.

I believe it remains the only stage work across the country that was created by an actual “refugee” who experienced Hurricane Katrina’s pounding, and the apocalyptic abandonment of New Orleans people by the Bush administration.

The Cone toured nationally and internationally for five years, but it was staged at a variety of venues in New Orleans to connect the piece to diverse communities, including immigrant workers. I performed “unplugged” versions that were easily staged at community gatherings, high schools, spoken word events, culture festivals, and churches.

ALIENS, IMMIGRANTS & OTHER EVILDOERS was the follow up piece in 2010, and with the support of an NPN Creation Fund, the research for this project was more intentional with interviews of a variety of immigrant workers in New Orleans, including day laborers at their pick-up points.

To expand on the more national plight of immigrants, I also interviewed immigrant workers, activists, and “Dreamers” in Houston and Washington DC. In DC, Gala Hispanic Theatre was a commissioning partner for ALIENS.

In New Orleans, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center was the commissioning partner, and when we debuted ALIENS in October of 2010, we brought in day laborers and other members of the immigrant community that had never stepped into a theater in the Big Easy. For years after the storm, I developed a more expansive network to include a variety of immigrant service organizations and church groups, cultivating new strategies to serve a growing Latino community that is not on the cultural radar of local theaters or art organizations.

The groundwork was not easy, but the results galvanized an audience of white, black, and brown attendees, which is a rarity for theater events in New Orleans. Another unspoken aspect of our theater and visual arts scene in the Crescent City is the lingering legacy of segregation that still haunts the arts. Music is the most integrated art form, but sadly, the theater and visual arts scene remain segregated affairs, and most prefer to ignore it.

There is not one theater or performing arts venue in the city where one can experience an audience that reflects the diversity of a city that still remains 60% African American. The Ashé Cultural Arts Center is probably the closest to one, and its Executive Director Carol Bebelle has been vocal and active about letting the Latino community know that her casa es nuestra casa. Ashé is also our house.

While immigrants are still ubiquitous at many construction sites across the city, they inhabit a parallel universe and are rendered invisible by the general population which has benefited from their labor. As a sci-fi Latino noir genre-bending performance, ALIENS explores this bizarre reality, where the labor of immigrants is exploited while they suffer in silence, and are deemed extraterrestrials and inhuman.

I have toured ALIENS nationally for the past three years, and wherever it is performed, I encourage and assist the theater organizations to reach out to Latino immigrants and day laborer communities.

In Houston, ALIENS was commissioned by MECA, a Mexican American organization deeply committed to its surrounding Latino community, which is experiencing the sting of gentrification as the historic area is being encroached upon. As part of the residency project, we received an NPN Community Grant, and it allowed us to take the show to Latino communities that were not going to make it to the theater. With its longtime Director Alice Valdez, we decided to bring a traveling version of the show in the MECA van to outlying immigrant communities in the Houston area and suburbs.

I traveled to grammar schools and community centers where ESL classes were conducted, and with a few costumes and props, I performed ALIENS “unplugged”. The success of this van venture planted the seed for me to develop an actual mobile theater.

The ALIENS Taco Truck Theater Project is inspired by Teatro Campesino’s legendary tent shows on flatbed trucks. Luis Valdez’s company brought the stories of migrant farm workers in California into the public domain and Union Halls—raising awareness for their labor struggles in the late 60s and 70s.

The goal is to transform a taco truck into a theater on wheels, and raise consciousness for the most dehumanized workers today—immigrant laborers and hotel cleaning women. Our objective is  to explore the voices of people working in the shadows of the construction and hotel service industries.

The Augusto Boal-inspired strategies will engage workers in having them perform as their own protagonists on the truck stage. These stories, filmed interviews with immigrants, and community gatherings on immigration will inform a collaborative process that will be developed at Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, home of immigrant refugee communities from many nations.

I will be collaborating with Pangea’s Dipankar Mukherjee and Meena Natarajan of India. Dipankar will direct the stage production, and I will also collaborate with playwright and performance artist Raquel Almazan, who is of Costa Rican descent and based in New York City. All born outside the U.S., we know the fragile state of being cast as the “alien other”.

We have just been awarded a 2013 NPN Creation Fund to develop this project, and Living Arts of Tulsa is also on board as a commissioning partner. We will be traveling to Oklahoma to engage communities in the heartland on the immigration debate.

Taking the work directly to immigrant communities, we will bring heroic stories of these workers to Home Depot and Lowe’s parking lots, parks, and other venues in the public domain to reach a variety of non-traditional theater audiences.

Our prime directive is to democratize the theater arts with an inventive outreach project that will cross economical, geographical, and racial borders, as a roaming site-specific work. We will go where no ALIENS Taco Truck Theater has gone before.

José Torres-Tama is an NEA award recipient for his interdisciplinary performance work and a Louisiana Theater Fellow. He explores the underbelly of the “American Dream” mythology, and since 1995, he has toured his genre-bending performances nationally and internationally. In April 2103, he was awarded a National Performance Network Creation Fund to develop the ALIENS Taco Truck Theater Project. In 2010, he received a previous NPN Creation Fund for ALIENS, IMMIGRANTS & OTHER EVILDOERS, his touring solo which chronicles the persecution of Latino immigrants. In the academy Cornell, Duke, Vanderbilt, and other institutions have presented his work and lectures on performance as a tool for social change.