Art and change: New Haven / León theater project addresses social justice

By Lucile Bruce

Imagine starting a journey — without knowing where you’re going.

You’re not sure who’s going with you. You’ve set a few, but not all, of your travel dates. You have some money, but not quite enough yet. You don’t know exactly what you’re going to do on this journey. And your uncertainty is part of the point.

The New Haven-León Theater Project, launched this spring, is such a journey. Developing on two geographical fronts — New Haven, Connecticut, USA, and León, Nicaragua — the project invites the participation of people who may or may not be professional artists. These people bring diverse concerns, passions, and goals to a project in which process is paramount.

Collaborators are starting wide, without preconceived story ideas, schedules, or plans. True, they’ve got a training to attend, a performance to sponsor, a plane to catch — and a deep belief in social justice. But for now, that’s about it.

The project is based at the New Haven/León Sister City Project (NHLSCP), a local nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote social justice in New Haven and León.

In 1984, explains NHLSCP program director Chris Schweitzer, a group of local citizens traveled to Nicaragua. They were impressed by the post-revolution rebuilding work being done there. At the time, Nicaraguans were asking people in the United States to start projects in Nicaragua. NHLSCP was established to answer that call. Today, says Schweitzer, the organization’s primary work is in Goyena, a village about 12 kilometers outside of León. NHLSCP has a staff of three full- and six part-time members in León (all Nicaraguans), and three part-time staff members, including Schweitzer, in New Haven.

The New Haven/León Theater Project is the brainchild of New Haven-based writer/theater artist Aaron Jafferis. Jafferis, a respected leader in the local arts community, grew up in New Haven and has worked as a freelance artist on many projects here and around the country. In 2010, he traveled to Nicaragua as part of a NHLSCP teachers’ delegation. It was his second trip to León.

Jafferis led workshops with youth about conflicts from their own lives.

“But the thing that really grabbed me,” he recalls, “was meeting with an organization called ASOCHIVIDA.”

ASOCHIVIDA, a collective of sugar-cane workers and their families, has for several years been protesting the abusive labor and environmental practices at the mill and surrounding fields near León. Workers are dying of chronic kidney failure, an epidemic they and others believe is caused by exposure to harmful chemicals used to process sugar. In 2008, ASOCHIVIDA filed a complaint with the Compliance Advisor and Ombudsman of the World Bank, a financier of the powerful private sugar-cane company that owns the mill. Dialogue and negotiation over this issue continue today.

Meeting with ASOCHIVIDA, Jafferis felt his artistic perspective widening.

“It got me thinking that it would be interesting to make theater with adults in León, and to create an exchange that would bring theater here and there,” he recalls.

Moved by the workers’ struggle and the complexity of their situation, Jafferis began to imagine what it would be like “to make art that actually changes something.”

He contacted Schweitzer, who invited others to join the conversation — including Megan Fountain, a local community organizer. Fountain, now chairperson of the theater project planning committee, proposed incorporating into the project the methods and techniques of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.

Boal (1934-2009) founded Theatre of the Oppressed in his home city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His work was influenced by educator/theorist Paulo Freire, a fellow Brazilian whose 1968 education manifesto Pedagogy of the Oppressed argued that education must enable oppressed people to find their own solutions to the problems they face.

Boal developed techniques to help ordinary citizens create theater and to turn audience members into participants rather than spectators. Boal’s work, radical in its empowerment of citizens to tell their own stories and affect the outcome of the real-life “dramas” in which they are living, caught the attention of military dictators and in 1971 Boal was imprisoned, tortured, and subsequently exiled. Today he is considered one of the most important theater artists of his generation, and his work has inspired a worldwide theater movement.

Boal’s work provides the theoretical framework for the New Haven/León Theater Project. In June, the project sponsored a three-day workshop on Theatre of the Oppressed led by New Haven native Katy Rubin. Rubin is a Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner, educator, and actor based in New York City. Her workshop offered an immersion in Boal’s techniques, essential training for those interested in using theater for social change in New Haven and León.

In early August, in collaboration with Bregamos Community Theater of New Haven, the New Haven/León Theater Project will present The Peasant of El Salvador, a play by Peter Gould and Stephen Stearns. This two-person play focuses on the struggles of one farmer and his family and addresses many contemporary issues relevant to people in Latin America and the United States. The production is co-sponsored by the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies at Yale University; proceeds from ticket sales will help support the delegation to León. NHLSCP won a grant for the theater project from the International Association of New Haven. In May, the group held a “Project Launch Fundraiser” and continues to raise funds to support its work.

On August 7, the first Theater Delegation departs for León, returning on August 16. Jafferis, Rubin, and Fountain are members of the delegation which Jafferis estimates will include 8-12 people.

At the time of this writing, Jafferis could not say exactly what the delegation will be doing on its first trip to León. He hopes that eventually, participants in New Haven, León, and the village of Goyena will co-create a piece of theater. But he’s not going to impose an agenda. Like his fellow delegation members, he’s making this journey to listen and learn. He and his collaborators hope it will be the first of many Theater Delegation trips. They also hope to welcome a group from León and Goyena to New Haven next year.

“We have no idea where this is going to go,” says Jafferis. “It will look completely different from what we imagine right now. If we have everything planned out beforehand, then it’s about us, and not about Goyena or New Haven.”

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