“We partner with communities facing discrimination to inspire transformative action through theatre”
Theatre of the Oppressed is a format of theatre activities and performances that engage communities in social change. Theatre Of The Oppressed NYC (TONYC) bases its work on a methodology created in the 1970s by the legendary Brazilian theatre director and activist Augusto Boal, who was himself inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of The Oppressed. As a form of activism and artistic practice, Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed is now used in over 70 countries around the world.
Theatre of The Oppressed NYC was founded in 2011 by Katy Rubin. Since 2011, TONYC has grown rapidly in response to a real need for social change, especially in communities experiencing crisis. Theatre of the Oppressed NYC partners with community members at local organizations to form theatre troupes. These troupes devise and perform plays based on the challenges confronting economic inequality, racism, health, and human rights injustices. After each performance, actor and audience engage in theatrical brainstorming, called Forum Theatre. The aim is catalyzing creative change on the individual, community, and political levels.
TONYC’s team of Jokers are the people who help facilitate the workshops and performances. They now collaborate with TONYC’s troupes to create more than 60 public performances a year.
I had the delightful honour of interviewing Omari Soulfinger, a comedic performing artist dedicated to creative advocacy, and one of the Jokers and facilitators at TONYC. In addition to this role as Joker, Omari has been a classroom teacher, social worker, and advocate. He is also a member – organizer with Brooklyn Movement Center, Ramapo For Children, Mankind Project, and All Kings. Omari has also performed stand-up comedy, improv, storytelling, puppetry, musical, forum, street theatre, mime, clowning, and burlesque. The interview focused around his work with TONYC.
OMARI: What is unique about what we do is that we think it is very important that the stories that we are telling reflect real problems and therefore come from real people. It is important that the people who own these stories and face the problems, actively present and perform the theatre. We offer a stipend for participation because we value the person and their story. We come from an understanding that there is nothing wrong with whom I am or what I’ve gone through; but there is a system, a hierarchy, a mechanized way of being that has contributed to this situation in which getting what I need or want is difficult simply because of who I am. Why do we put these problems in a show? It is not enough to say there is a problem. We invite folks to step on to the stage. They get a taste of what it would be like to try to change the outcome. They may think the problem is so simple and easy. An example is, if all those young Black youth knew their rights they wouldn’t be killed by police officers. It is not that simple. The biggest success is that people leave and realize that the stage never ends. The stage that you can intervene and get involved in, is all around you. What is tried out in rehearsal on the actors’ stage, they can then do in the real world.
For example, we had a show around folks who were recently out of incarceration, struggling to make ends meet, and something that came out of that show was this idea of what if there was legislation in which the Metro Card (used for the subway) was discounted for people of certain incomes. We invited our policy makers to those shows and it passed and became legislation. It is now called “Fair Fares”. Something that was imagined and practiced in the theatre space actually became reality.
ON BEING A JOKER
OMARI: Think of a deck of cards and the joker card is a wild card that can turn the rules of the game on its head. It is in the deck but not on the deck. My job is to problematize the rules of the “oppression game”. To mix it up and to flip it. You don’t have to be or need to be, the expert. In Theatre of The Oppressed, which has its roots in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, we are challenging the idea of “expert”. That your lived experience makes you the expert, more than a book, or a degree.
We do this work with two Jokers, which helps build this idea of a dialogue between actor and audience. We use two Jokers because another Joker might not see the problem the same way. There is a constant dialogue that’s happening between the actor and audience and the facilitator (joker) and actor. And the facilitator has power and potential to oppress too! Where does that power come from and who gave it to me? When I come to your community, your neighbourhood, why should you trust our understanding of the issue. There is a constant dialogue during the process.
Where an impressive panel of public defenders, activists, representing groups such as Just Leadership USA, Department of Youth and Community Development, and the Centre for Justice, are brought together with council members, to Watch, Act, and Vote.
OMARI : It is a huge deal. I happen to be of the opinion that politics, bureaucracy, and the system is boring by design. In my experience, watching council members in congress debate about the budget is stale. It is very lengthy. It is not presented to engage folks from all classes and walks of life. I think that is what Legislative Theatre does. You get to see a piece of the story that you can relate to, done in a way to keep your attention. Some of the bill passing and negotiation is done by you. Statistics, and data can be great, but sometimes narrative is better. You can take this magic wand of theatre and decide what could solve the problem. We are using fiction to inform facts. Then we give it over to some representative or policy person, to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. They give it back to us and we check to see if it works in our story. We are in the same room and we can figure it out.
COVID AND ITS EFFECT ON THE THEATRE COMPANY
OMARI: In our community, we have lost a lot of people because of Covid and have not been able to properly grieve. While Covid is taking folks from our community we still have to figure out how to bring in income, figure out housing, and how to pay rent. We were able to offer a $50,000 relief fund for actors in our community, and send out tablets so that actors could still participate in troupes. One of our latest productions is about Covid and this larger ideology that says “Yes CoVid but also make sure you go to work, school, and buy things…no time to process this collective trauma”. Well, when you don’t get to properly grieve you may behave in a certain way that actually might bring upon oppression/violence to someone else. There is a scene where a man is angry about coming to the hospital to check on his father who has Covid and the nurse won’t let him in because of hospital protocol and she’s overworked and can’t handle the moment with care.
Covid has also affected us in that we have moved completely on Zoom. It takes creativity for the dramaturgy. Some cameras are off and we hide non video participants. We have emphasized more sound effects, so we are almost a part radio drama. We figured it out and we have adjusted enough. We are not Broadway, the point is not to be.
You can learn more about Theatre of the Oppressed NYC on the
And follow them on social media.
They do accept donations (top right hand corner on their homepage)and are seeking volunteers. All of the shows are free and the actors are paid, so donations are important.
Speaking with Omari and learning about his dedication and work with TONYC helps us to realize there are ways that people in theatre can impact lives in positive ways and create change. It is very inspiring to learn from a group of people who are doing important ground level work. People who have organized their lives to confront economic inequality, racism, and injustice.