During the ONE West Oakland event at the West Oakland YMCA in February, two youth groups I encountered—BAY-Peace and Youth Together—have stuck with me. ONE West Oakland, an ongoing series hosted by the city of Oakland and the YMCA, brings together Oakland’s community based organizations to discuss how violence affects us, and how we can combat it.
BAY-Peace, a theater troupe, and Youth Together, a program that teaches Oakland high school students organizing skills, presented their cases for combating violence -- BAY-Peace through the medium of theater, and Youth Together by inviting the audience to a teach-in about the cycles of violence.
Youth Together representatives, students from Fremont High School, and organizer Briseida Solis, started their presentation by posing a question to the audience: What do we see in our neighborhood that helps us identify what poverty is? The audience, largely made up of West Oakland parents, expressed their attachment to home but their dismay at the feeling that their children are being neglected. In particular, parents expressed frustration over their children’s education. One mother criticized Teach for America in Oakland Schools, stating that TFA teachers don’t understand students’ backgrounds. She expressed that Oakland needs to prioritize teachers that really care, who are willing to stay in the neighborhood for more than three years.
BAY-Peace gave a performance in the gym. Their approach to theater is rooted in anti-military politics, and inspired by the Theater of the Oppressed—a technique developed by Brazilian Augusto Boal that aims to promote social change by activating the audience.
BAY-Peace brings together a collection of Oakland teenagers through different exercises that engage them in imagining an alternative reality. Through a mix of goofy exercise and more somber ones, the actors are free to come out of their shells and play. Many members told me that BAY-Peace made them less reserved, and all the members I talked to expressed that it made them happier and lighter.
“Image theater” is a practice commonly used to model how things are, but the troupe uses the technique to imagine what a healthy community looks like. Actors stepped out of their bodies and supported each other through the practice of “doubling,” in which an actor freezes, and an audience member steps behind the person they want to support. One of the organizers, Tatiana Chaterji, proudly stated that this is poor theater—no props necessary.
For Jorge, a member of BAY-Peace, the joy of theater is that it frees you from language. Interpretation of the art or play becomes a reciprocal exchange between actor and observer. He conveyed that theater is a special medium because you can “express your feelings through movement rather than taking on a lecture, voice to voice pretty much.”
Before joining BAY-Peace, Jorge had been drawn to community issues and attracted to acting, but he said that BAY-Peace has motivated him to attack political issues head on. “It motivates you to actually want to attack change and form some kind of change in your community,” he said. “You begin to actually see around you more and see what’s right and wrong and it makes you want to change it as well.”
To get a sense of BAY-Piece’s energy and creativity, view a video of their flash mob in downtown Oakland.
—by Sophia Hussain, OMCA Community Storyteller