General 2-9-2007

A Politics of Openness: The Political Theater Festival

One of Teatro del Pueblo’s highest profile events is their annual Political Theatre Festival; here’s theatre critic Jaime Kleiman’s introduction to it. Read more in a&E, our email newsletter; click Join/Subscribe on the homepage to start getting it.

Teatro del Pueblo

One of Teatro del Pueblo’s highest profile events is their annual Political Theatre Festival; here’s theatre critic Jaime Kleiman’s introduction to it. Read more in a&E, our email newsletter; see this month’s Collections for a sampling.

Teatro del Pueblo was founded in 1992 by a group of Latino artists and community members on the West Side of St. Paul, in the heart of the city’s Latino population. The company is committed to developing Latino talent and promoting diversity in the arts. It works within the community, as well as throughout greater Minnesota and western Wisconsin, to foster dialogue, communication, and respect for people of all stripes and colors.

Teatro del Pueblo remains housed in West St. Paul and provides affordable theatre for those largely underserved neighborhoods. Their audience’s demographics are a motley group that includes Latinos, Somali, Hmong, and European-Americans.

Alberto Justiniano is one of the founders of Teatro del Pueblo and its current Executive Director. In 2000, Justiniano began commissioning playwrights to work on the nascent festival. Its debut was supposed to happen in November of 2001, but its inception was stalled by the events of September 11th. Justiniano was quick to point out, however, that the festival “was not started in response to 9/11—it was in response to trying to grow as citizens of the world and trying to understand how others think. It was a proactive thing.” In March of 2002, all the pieces finally came together and Teatro del Pueblo’s Political Theatre Festival was born.

This month, Teatro presents their 6th Annual Political Theatre Festival. It’s one of those rare instances where community action butts heads with art and creates something beyond facile ideologies. There are five plays in all, written by a handful of selected playwrights: Dominic Orlando, a former Jerome Fellow with the Playwrights’ Center; Dana Yeaton, who has had plays produced at the Humana and William Inge theatre festivals; Guillermo Reyes, an award-winning Hispanic playwright and a professor at Arizona State University; actor and playwright Daniel Damiano; and J. B. Pravda.

The commissioned playwrights have to work within specific parameters, however. Explained Justiniano, “I give [the playwrights] themes and the number of actors. I’m very specific on what I need. To a point, [I influence the playwright’s point of view.] …They do the research and interview different people. It’s an amalgamation of the people they interview, and I don’t tell them they have to be pro this or pro that.”

“I got involved with Teatro del Pueblo a few years ago through the Artistic Director, Al Justiniano,” said Orlando in an e-mail message. “Polly Carl over at The Playwrights’ Center brought us together…. What I think is great about the festival is its unique flavor of political theatre. These writers have an emotional and heartfelt connection to the material.

“As far as the process goes, it’s different every time. This year, Al and I worked on three pieces together. Al comes to me with the germ of an idea, then he and I hash it out for a while, then I get to work. Usually we’ll go through two to four drafts, talking and writing. Then he’ll have a reading of the piece and come back to me with some input for the final polish. It’s become a pretty terrific partnership over the years.”

Though the festival doesn’t always revolve around a specific theme, this year’s does: the thorny and topical issue of Latino immigration. “We have been touring a show for a couple years [about this subject] before the issue became ‘hot,’” claimed Justiniano. “And we noticed there was a marked interest in the issue.”

“Hot” is an understatement. The April 2006 rally in Washington, D.C., attracted more than ten thousand people from all over the country, most of them Spanish-speaking. Bush and some members of Congress have tended to approach the “immigration issue” as if it were a plague, while business owners and farmers have openly acknowledged the value of illegal immigrants doing the jobs they claim American citizens don’t want to do.

When pressed, Justiniano refused to state his personal opinion on the matter, or about what he thinks of the plays that will be presented during the festival. This is “about getting people to talk about it…with respect, obviously,” he explained. “It’s not about what I think. The more we learn about other people’s opinions, the more we’re able to consider our own opinions and learn to listen and understand more of the reality of the situation. If it becomes about just me, then it’s my little thing. This is a gift to Minnesota.”

Teatro del Pueblo’s 6th Annual Political Theatre Festival runs Feb. 15-March 4. All shows are at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S. Tickets: 612-871-4444.