Grantee Spotlight: Theatre of the Oppressed NYC
This summer, our Communications Intern Daniel-Joseph Cyan is writing about the Foundation's grantees as he experiences their work first-hand.
On Thursday, June 22nd, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC) and Red Hook Community Justice Center teamed up to put on “All Chained Up: Flipping the Script On Racism & Body Image in Red Hook”.
TONYC was founded in 2011 by Katy Rubin, who trained with Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal in Rio de Janiero in 2008. After returning to New York and discovering a lack of effective "popular theatre"—interactive theater created by communities facing oppression—Rubin helped form the Jan Hus Homeless Theatre Troupe, which is now called Concrete Justice (TONYC’s flagship troupe).
A theater troupe is comprised of 5-20 actors and two TONYC “jokers” who serve as facilitators/coordinators. TONYC actors write their own scenes based on lived experiences, and bring their own story to the forefront. 75% of actors in TONYC’s troupes are black, 60% live with mental illness, and 65% have a history in the criminal justice system. TONYC is supported by Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Invest in Youth Grant Program.
“By judging me, he would never see me for me, or us for us,” Darius, an actor read before the first act. Darius performed a poem about police brutality before playing the role of a black man who was killed by a police officer. His character faces the issues of stereotyping, racism, and police harassment. On talking about his personal connection to his role, Darius shares, “It’s really hard as an African American—or any person of color. You feel like it’s a target on your back and you don’t feel safe in this environment that we live in.” I enjoyed that the scene didn't just focus on one issue; just as in the real world, issues often overlap.
The second scene focused on body image. The scene featured two men interviewing for a role on a wrestling show, but the one who got the role was not the one with experience, but the one that would sell. The very last scene, before audience members were asked to participate, dealt with fat shaming and the consequences.
The audience members were asked to replace actors in scenes to find solutions to the issue that presented itself. This was the first time I’ve seen a show that involved audience participation and improv to create social change. The actors were ready for any reaction from the participating audience member, and were sure to be persistent to hold on to the power they had in the situation.
The night was as impactful for the actors as much as it was for the audience members. Alexys, the protagonist in the body shaming scene, shared, “I’ve experienced racism and sexism, so that hits home. The one with body image, I’ve struggled with some issues of that myself.”
Each actor had their own reasons for joining TONYC. Daeshani, an actress in the body shaming scene, shared her passion for the arts, and the passion to use the arts to create social change.
Theatre of the Oppressed NYC creates change by audience participation in a way that allows collective brainstorming, and challenges the audience members to think on their feet if their first strategy doesn’t work. This work is important, because it uses performance art—a medium anyone can enjoy—to bring awareness to issues that can so easily be ignored if you’re not the one affected. TONYC is universal, and even if a person might not face an issue covered during a performance, TONYC provides tools to create better allies.
Learn more about TONYC at www.tonyc.nyc.