Alvan Colon Lespier (1995)

Ramón Romero Rosa, a turn of the century Puerto Rican anarchist, coined the phrase, “sin más religión que el trabajo y sin más patria que el taller.” Loosely translated, this means “no other religion than our work, no other homeland than our workplace.” Rosa said this in the context of workers’ struggles for economic and social justice, but to me, it has particular resonance for the theater and those of us who work in it.

Rosa’s comments came to mind this April while I was participating in a meeting of the People of Color Caucus of the National Performance Network (NPN). The NPN is a national network of more than fifty arts presenters and artists in the United States. The POC Caucus is an initiative within the network that currently brings together its African American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Japanese, and Native American members. The POC Caucus includes such organizations and artists as Susan Stewart from Montana Indian Contemporary Arts in Bozeman, Keith Antar Mason and the Hittite Empire from Los Angeles, Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción from Boston, and Asian American Renaissance from St. Paul, MN.

Most of us in the POC Caucus create and/or present work that is rooted in our respective cultures and is aimed at audiences in our respective communities. We gathered in Durham, North Carolina to discuss the challenges facing our work, our organizations, and our communities, and what needs to be done to address them. We discussed our achievements and ways we can support each other.

We are an eclectic caucus, to say the least. Some are individual artists, others represent organizations and groups. Some come from rural areas, others from cities. Collectively, our work spans the range of performing conventions — from storytelling to traditional and contemporary dance to European style theater to theater from other traditions and styles. We perform in many different languages. Despite our differences, I was struck by how much we have in common. In a very real way, we embody Rosa’s remarks. We are defined by the way we relate to the work we do as much as by the cultures we come from. Our work stems from our individual and social experience as artists rooted in distinct cultures outside of the dominant Euro-American society. Our artistic choices reflect this experience.

A central element to all our work is the relationship to community. Community is neither an abstraction nor a funding concept for us. It is the cornerstone upon which our work is built. Whether in the Chicano barrios of the Southwest, the black neighborhoods of the urban Southeast, or inner city areas across the country, all of us are part of the communities in which we do our work. We live in them. We have daily contact with the people in these communities, people who are also part of our audiences. The problems of the community are the problems we encounter in our own lives; the community’s triumphs are part of our triumphs as well. These triumphs and problems are often the inspiration for the theater we make.

Such is the case of Pregones Theater, for example, with whom I’ve worked for the past fourteen years. Pregones is a Puerto Rican theater based in the South Bronx — that pluricultural, multi-lingual border town, north of Manhattan, south of Canada, and 1500 miles from Puerto Rico. We are a permanent ensemble of six actors and four musicians. We produce plays by established Puerto Rican writers as well as original works by members of the company. We also present the work of other artists and groups in a variety of disciplines and styles whose vision is congruent with ours. We have been producing since 1979.

“Pregones” are the chants that street vendors in the Caribbean sing as they peddle their wares. We consider ourselves to be a Puerto Rican theater because the main foothold of our work is in Puerto Rican culture and its multiple popular expressions. When staging a play we explore a wide spectrum of choices available to us through our music, our oral traditions, our traditional dances, and urban experiences. Puerto Rican coastal and highland musical genres and dance forms, contemporary Latin jazz influences, Spanish and African tales and the urban experience of living in New York are common sources for the development of our plays.

Within this there is a lot of diversity. When Pregones began, the population of the South Bronx was almost exclusively Puerto Rican. Now, there are increasing numbers of Dominicans and other Latin Americans who are part of the community. There are people of all ages, races, social and economic classes. This diversity, which is reflective of the diversity of Latino culture as a whole, is also reflected in our company. Our artists are from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and New York. They are fair-skinned, dark-skinned, mestizo, bilingual, monolingual. All of us draw from our respective heritages in the development of our work.

From migration to national identity to HIV/AIDS to Caribbean mythology, Pregones’ plays cover a wide range of issues and stories, many of them adapted from fiction and poetry. Some of our works include Baile Cangrejero, an homage to poetry and music rooted in our African heritage assembled by the company; Medea’s Last Rosary by Jose Manuel Torres Santiago, a retelling of the Medea story set in the century-old Puerto Rican Feasts of the Cross (Las Fiestas de Cruz); The Wedding March, an adaptation of a poetry and short story anthology by Judith Ortiz Cofer, with original music, that explores the universe of romance, weddings, and traditions affecting women in a Puerto Rican family; and Quintuplets by Luis Rafael Sanchez, which captures the mythical, the popular, the poetic, the irreverent, and the caustic manner of Puerto Ricans through the story of the fictional Morrison Quintuplets. Humor, drama, music, dance, and movement are central to most of our pieces. We perform in English or in Spanish and, on occasion, in both.

Pregones’ mainstage productions are premiered at our theater in the South Bronx. We present a Visiting Artist Series there as well. Our touring and residency program has taken us to cities throughout the eastern United States, from Allentown, PA, where we have spent a nine month residency performing, developing new work, and teaching at a variety of venues; to Rindge, MA, where we performed at a gathering of anthropologists a piece commissioned by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities based on the book Translated Woman by Ruth Behar; to Whitesburg, KY, where we conducted a week-long residency at Appalshop that included performances and workshops with students and local artists. We work in conventional theater spaces, performing arts centers, museums, and in traditional community gathering sites — high school auditoriums, churches, and assembly halls.

Five years ago, I attended a national meeting of artists, presenters, and producers, the first such gathering I had been to in the United States. Though I enjoyed learning about the work at a wide range of theaters and picking up pointers about fundraising and such, I found myself totally at a loss during a panel discussion that ensued around the issue of “community” and the number of definitions of it that were being brought to the table. Awkwardly absent from the discussion was the issue of economic relations, how we relate to structures of wealth and social privilege and what is our position in those structures. It was as if the idea of community — and theater itself — somehow existed in isolation from all that.

This lack of clarity and context contributes to the frequent vagueness which surrounds the idea of community. Community, multicultural, diverse, inclusive, and so on, are terms that are more and more frequently used by the most privileged cultural institutions in an attempt to broaden their (often dwindling) audience base and gain more financial support for their work. While some of these efforts might indeed be genuine, many are simply functional. Despite perceptions to the contrary, most of the monies going to support diversity in the past decade or more have gone to white-led institutions, which with few exceptions, remain unchanged in their missions and leaderships. Their audiences are mainly affluent and Anglo and most of their artists and administrators share that background. If such concepts of “community” and “diversity” were taken at all seriously by these institutions, some substantive change should have been apparent by now.

For grassroots theaters, such as Pregones, the diversity within our communities is reflected in our work, but the motivation is not marketing. We do not produce a play just to broaden our audience. We do not cast so as to fill more seats. But we might do work in English and in Spanish in order to break down a language barrier. And we are engaged creatively with our communities in many ways beyond the production of our work.

But one more thing needs to be said about grassroots theater generally. Like our significantly larger cousin institutions, the main motivation for our existence is artistic. We are not involved in charity work, nor is our thrust therapeutic role playing. Rather, we are trying to bring forth the aesthetic views of people and communities that are not often represented in the culture as a whole. We are trying to capture and make vibrant the stories, histories, dreams and songs of people like ourselves. Many of us have had extensive training in theater, but have chosen to work outside the more prominent professional channels because we find it more gratifying to create work for an audience of our actual peers, those with whom we have a deep and personal relationship.

These issues surface as I reflect on the gathering of the POC Caucus and at the same time try to make sense of the situation facing the theater in New York City. Though the demands of fundraising often puts us into competition with each other, I see all theater, whether Broadway, off-Broadway, experimental, or grassroots, as part of the complex fabric of U.S. culture. Most of us attending the meeting in North Carolina sustain a living relationship with the communities and cultures that engendered us. In a very real way, the artist is merely an extension of the audience. The works that are staged, the stories that are told, the songs that are strummed and drummed may be new, but they are never alien, they may be old, but are not irrelevant. I wish that were true for all theater.

The outcome of the Caucus meeting was positive. We acknowledged a need for greater peer support and sharing of resources. Steps were outlined to put that into place. I came away from the meeting with a clearer sense of the diversity we represent and the obstacles we must face to continue doing art that grows from the grassroots. The obstacles are many.

It hardly needs to be said, but “if you want to be redundant, be redundant,” as the quintuplets in Pregones’ recent production proclaim. These times are not the best for theater in this country. For theater rooted in and created outside of the dominant U.S. culture, the situation is particularly difficult.

Public funding, the major source of support for grassroots theaters, is diminishing. Foundation and corporate support is not growing fast enough to fill the public void. This has been true for more than a decade. Many foundations are now donating their dollars to aggressive mainstream institutions with “multicultural” programs, in order, presumably, to reach a larger audience. This shift falls especially hard on grassroots theaters, as we find ourselves shortening our seasons and curtailing our programming even more.

But beyond our needs, our very communities are being devastated. Essential social services are being dismantled at an astonishing rate. In the Bronx, city-owned hospitals are being merged, reducing the number of health care outlets for the largely uninsured population. Unemployment is rising while training programs are being cut back. Class sizes in public schools continue to increase and at the city’s once free colleges and universities, tuition keeps getting raised, while departments are being closed. If there was ever a time theater was needed to maintain the spirit of community, this is it. Yet, we are more pressed than ever. This situation is true nationwide.

Some of the arguments in defense of supporting theater and arts institutions in general are that jobs are created, money is spent by patrons, tourism is generated, and the economy grows. These may be valid arguments, but they are not the primary issue. What is at stake is the very heart and soul of our society. This cannot be sustained by commercially created culture or the marketplace alone.

While grassroots theaters, such as Pregones in the Bronx, Su Teatro in Denver, Los Actores de San Antonio in San Antonio, Junebug Productions in New Orleans, and Roadside Theater in Whitesburg, Kentucky have provided employment for hundreds of actors, technicians, designers, and staff, have stimulated the development of tourism, and have generated hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars of revenue for local businesses, they have done much, much more. They entertain and enlighten, inspire and challenge; they serve as neutral environments for the resolution of conflicts; they offer their communities a forum for re-definition, re-affirmation, and self-determination.

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