Tierra y Cuerpo: Connecting Communities with Theater
The Power Street Theatre Company’s free adult theatre program teaches students the basics of theatre writing and performance, but it’s the relationships and connections they forge that will have a lasting impact.
When Swati Chaturvedi went to her first experimental theater class on Thursday, March 5, she didn’t know what to expect. The founder of the Community Bollywood Dance Project, Chaturvedi’s work involves a lot of workshops, performances and public speaking, but theater still offered some mystery.
“This idea of emoting and also just developing more comfort with your body,” she said. “That always had me curious.”
She was embarking on a creative journey in the capable hands of the Power Street Theatre Company. Her experimental theater class was part of the group’s Tierra y Cuerpo (Land and Body) class, a free adult theater program based in the West Kensington Ministry at the corner of Hancock and Susquehanna, across from Norris Square Park. For two months, every Tuesday and Thursday, the atrium of the ministry has been a hub for imagination and creativity found through the composition and performance of theater.
Chaturvedi’s first class involved answering 40 questions. With no initial purpose or end goal in sight, she followed her instincts to answer the questions. When Chaturvedi and the rest of the class finished, the instructor, Gabriela Sanchez, also co-founder of Power Street, had the students make grids out of their responses.
“We started reading it, and next thing you know there’s a story that starts emerging,” said Chaturvedi.
In that moment of realization, the true purpose of the activity revealed itself.
“Because you’ve instinctively answered these seemingly random questions, the story that emerges is a very personal story,” said Chaturvedi.
According to Erlina Ortiz, resident playwright at Power Street, sharing personal anecdotes is a common building block to construct the bridges that connect people to one another and form community.
“Everybody has a story,” she said.
One of the first prompts Ortiz had her Tuesday evening playwriting class complete asked students about a time they felt they didn’t belong.
“Everyone knows a time, and it’s very visceral and easy to tie into those feelings,” she said.
For the purpose of her class, Ortiz showed her students how they could direct those feelings into writing a play, but at a deeper level she was connecting everyone in her class to one another in the same way Sanchez did for her experimental theatre class with the 40 questions exercise.
Tierra y Cuerpo is a program designed to both teach adults the basics of theater writing and performance, but also to bring together people from all different backgrounds. Though classes are held in West Kensington, there are participants from South Jersey and the Philadelphia suburbs. Even for the students from the neighborhood, it gives them more familiar faces to look for while navigating their days.
“People here are meeting for the first time,” said Ortiz. “Now they know each other.”
For playwriting student H.C. Davis, thanks to the sharing activities, her classmates now feel like family.
“I’ve been coming here a few weeks, and I can already feel like I have brothers and sisters and uncles—even the uncles you don’t want to see all the time,” she said.
Chaturvedi shared the same sentiment about her peers in the experimental theater class.
“I feel like I’ve known them way longer than I have,” she said.
Davis also said it’s important to have a program in a community where art opportunities are limited and its residents don’t have an outlet for their experiences.
“When you grow up in an area like this you kind of have to have this suit of armor on,” she said. “But when you come here, you can take all those layers off and just show up as your authentic self.”
This again, hits a pillar of Tierra y Cuerpo and Power Street’s message. Ortiz and Sanchez lead lives enriched by theater, and they want to pass that on to as many as they can.
“I see what that [theatre] has done for my life and I want to make sure other people have that as well for free and no other reason than I know how important this is,” said Ortiz.
Charlyn Griffith, also known as the artist Oro Ori and a student in the experimental theater class, expanded upon the idea of community and Power Street’s ability to affect it with Tierra y Cuerpo. According to her, the program allows her to embrace and connect with the individuals and facets of identity within a single community.
“Here I’m able to connect with the immigrant part of myself. I’m able to connect with the Caribbean part, the very young part, an elder,” said Griffith. “This is a sort of microcosm community.”
In one class, students hear homages to hometowns, stories of love and loss, conflicts of modernity and tradition and struggles to fit in. By confronting those different experiences as different parts of a single community, the class’ participants can come to grips with the many differences and issues that make up their complex neighborhoods.
“It’s not us/them,” said Griffith, “it’s like: ‘Oh shit, we really do have a lot of nuance that needs to get addressed.”
And Griffith believes Sanchez and Ortiz are more than capable to address and overcome those differences.
“This thing that Power Street has embarked upon, this journey with the community, with the neighborhood, is the thing that communities deserve,” she said.
Students from Ortiz’s playwriting class and Sanchez’s experimental theater class will present their work on May 11 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Las Parceles Garden at 2248 N Palethorp Street. The event is the first part of Power Street Theatre Company’s larger Theatre Al Fresco showcase for the community, which also includes a Comedy Cabaret on June 1 and a Power Slam on Aug. 17. All events will also have open mic portions and are pay what you can.