Listen: Teatro del Pueblo - new opening

MPR’s William Wilcoxen profiles Teatro del Pueblo, a performing arts theater on St. Paul’s West Side. Wilcoxen interviews theater founder and artists on the efforts to foster Latino storytelling.


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WILLIAM WILCOXEN: The neighborhood known as the West Side is just across the Mississippi River from downtown Saint Paul, and its touted cultural corridor of theaters and museums. But Alberto Justiniano of Teatro Del Pueblo, says even though downtown culture is not far away, it seems far removed from the West Side.

ALBERTO JUSTINIANO: People have an elitist perception of the theaters across downtown. They don't really see themselves as part of downtown, and also as part of something they do. Theater is not a very popular thing in the Latino community. And so we got our jobs cut out for us.

WILLIAM WILCOXEN: Despite the lack of theatrical tradition, Justiniano says he and the other founders of Teatro Del Pueblo decided theater was what the community needed.

ALBERTO JUSTINIANO: There wasn't any artistic expression, or theatrical expression in the West Side. And we wanted to celebrate the Hispanic Heritage in this area. And also use theater as a medium of social change, which is really important to us.

WILLIAM WILCOXEN: The group has already visited local schools with an interactive production that uses a one act play as a springboard to a discussion of violence in the community. Their first full length production, Bodega, also raises questions about violence and how to respond to it. Written by New York playwright Federico Fraguada, the play shows a family of Puerto Rican immigrants struggling to run their small grocery store or bodega, as the neighborhood around them becomes more violent.

SPEAKER 1: Everybody else is moving out of this neighborhood and you're wasting money putting up new alarms.

SPEAKER 2: It's an investment, not a waste. And we still have customers, not everybody's moving out. Just wait till they renovate those buildings across the street, you'll see, you'll be singing a different tune.

WILLIAM WILCOXEN: Actor Raul Ramos says audiences are most likely to respond to theater when they recognize themselves on stage. When characters confront problems that are familiar to the local community, Ramos says, groups such as Teatro Del Pueblo can contribute to social change. He adds that while this type of theater is new to Saint Paul's West Side, the issues it raises are ancient.

RAUL RAMOS: A lot of these issues have been relevant throughout history, and not only now, the issues of violence, and in the Hispanic community, and other minority communities, the issue of feeling like you belong and fighting for what you believe is your right to have. Those are issues that have been around for a long time.

WILLIAM WILCOXEN: But some say Latino artists have not always made those issues the focus of their work. Eva Lopez, the director of Bodega, speaks of a national Renaissance occurring in Latino theater, as artists take note of the high dropout rates and other social problems afflicting their communities. Lopez says as more artists become angry about such conditions, they're using their work to address the problems.

EVA LOPEZ: So I think that a lot of Latino artists who in the past have been off trying to get their careers off the ground have really begun to pull their resources together and work, and try to create work, and start doing art for communities again. And I think that's good.

WILLIAM WILCOXEN: Lopez also helped start a Latino theater group in New York City. She says she hopes new groups such as Teatro Del Pueblo, will inspire more young people to try writing plays. Specifically she says the experience of Latinos in Minnesota is a story that needs to be told.

EVA LOPEZ: I've been encouraging them very strongly to write their own stories because I think that those stories are Minnesotan, they're Latino, and they're very real to the people here. And I think that because they're so specific, they're going to be very universal. [LAUGHS]

WILLIAM WILCOXEN: Alberto Justiniano says he's collaborating on a play about the relationship between the Latino and Jewish populations on St. Paul's West Side, when the area was struck by floods during the 1960s. Performances of Bodega, Teatro Del Pueblo's first production, will continue through May 15 at Humboldt High School in Saint Paul. I'm William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio.


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