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Theatre of the Oppressed NYC explores racism, profiling via legislative theatre

TONYC actors perform a profiling scenario in which a young man is accused of conspiring to kill someone.
TONYC actors perform a profiling scenario in which a young man is accused of conspiring to kill someone.
Madina Toure/

On Friday night, New York City residents who have experienced racism and profiling with police officers became “spect-actors” as part of a legislative and theatrical brainstorming forum.

The three-day festival, titled “Can’t Get Right,” is a theatrical brainstorming forum and legislative theatre that addresses racism and profiling in the criminal justice system based on the actors’ real-life experiences. Theatre of the Oppressed NYC produced the festival in partnership with the Church of St. Luke in the Fields. The festival started on May 29 and will conclude on May 31.

The festival was created and performed by ensembles from Housing Works, the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services and the Ali Forney Center. New York City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer and Council Member Carlos Menchaca, two of six openly gay council members, were part of a policy advisor team that developed policy proposals based on the skits.

“We have these ideas, but what’s going to happen to them outside this space?” said Katy Rubin, artistic director and co-founder of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC. “There were some ideas that individuals could change and some ideas that they couldn’t.”

Last year, the festival addressed LGBTQ homeless youth and some interaction with the police. Van Bramer was the only politician present.

In 2011, Rubin, a theatre and circus artist, started Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, a nonprofit organization that specializes in “Theatre of the Oppressed,” an interactive and physical acting form used to investigate situations in which individuals' human rights are violated. Community actors, playwrights, designers, directors and producers come together and form original, interactive plays.

After training with Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theatre director and creator of the "Theatre of the Oppressed" methodology in Rio de Janeiro in 2008, she decided to start TONYC after realizing that there was a lack of “popular theatre,” interactive theatre created by communities experiencing oppression.

TONYC’s programs include popular troupes with HIV+ homeless New Yorkers, undocumented immigrants and refugees, LGBT homeless youth and New York City public school students and teachers.

Festival partners include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Bronx Defenders, the Center for Court Innovation, Drive Change and the Fortune Society.

The actors performed three skits. The first skit highlighted the city's stop-and-frisk policy. The second skit depicted a young man accused of harboring a weapon and conspiring to kill despite a lack of evidence and his claims that his friend was responsible. The third skit followed a transgender woman whose husband beat her up. When the police officers came to her place, they accused her of using drugs when they found a needle that she was using for her hormones.

Audience members became “spect-actors,” or participants in the forum. After each skit, audience members were invited to act out how they would have behaved in each scenario if they were the ones being profiled and shouted out possible solutions and what each character did wrong.

The policy advisor team included Van Bramer; Menchaca; Kamau Butcher, policy organizer for the Bronx Defenders; Ashley Coneys, project organizer for the Police Reform Organizing Project at the Urban Justice Center; Walter G. Rodriguez, director of policy and community organizing for the Bronx Defenders; and Candis Tolliver, assistant director for organizing for the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Advocacy Department.

Butcher said that because Van Bramer and Menchaca are both openly gay politicians, coming up with policy proposals was a "pleasant experience."

"It was good," Butcher said. "They were allied legislators, so it wasn't as if we were having too many disagreements."

The team formulated policy proposals based on the skits, and individuals were able to vote on whether or not they approved of a given proposal.

The proposals included body cameras for police officers, requiring a form of written consent before a search happens, legislation requiring police officers to identify themselves, a defendants’ bill of rights, making the budget for legal aid attorneys to that of the New York City Police Department, mandating middle and high school classes informing students of their basic rights, declaring a maximum caseload for attorneys, changing birth certificates to reflect people's preferred pronouns and municipal IDs for New Yorkers.

Van Bramer said that he would like to see more funding for programs working to combat domestic violence in the five boroughs. "We need to increase funding for domestic violence programs across the city in general everywhere," Van Bramer said.

Menchaca is a co-sponsor of a bill calling for government-issued municipal IDs for all New Yorkers, especially helping undocumented immigrants and the transgender community. The City Council is pushing for the cards to be accepted by the NYPD, and is planning to come up with a final bill in the next four weeks.

"It doesn't matter what status they are, their immigrant status, documented or undocumented, anyone can get this ID," Menchaca said. "And we're also going to legislate so that the barriers to our transgender community are really removed in allowing for their gender expression to be placed on this card."

Participants said that the festival provided them with a new perspective on racial and profiling incidents in the criminal justice system. Natalie Rebuck, 32, of Park Slope, said that she has not personally dealt with such issues but that it made her more aware of them.

“I didn’t realize that when somebody that’s been booked goes into central booking, that they can request a new lawyer and that there’s no paperwork involved,” Rebuck said. “They aren’t handed any information, they’re just kind of shoved in rooms.”

Los Angeles resident Brittany Jenkins, 22, was visiting a friend for the weekend who invited her to attend the festival. She said she was surprised to the degree to which lawyers and judges take their time to address defendants’ cases.

“I didn’t know that when defendants and people are out of the room, that the lawyers and the judge are already glued to one another and legitimately just do things on their own time, at their own leisure,” Jenkins said. “A lot of government systems are all corrupt but still, I thought there was some consideration for the inmate.”

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