Tuesday, August 4, 2020
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Building Community Through Theatre


Patrick Herrin | New University
Patrick Herrin | New University

Last year, the service workers across the UC system went on strike. Ring Road and the flagpoles were flooded with a sea of green union shirts, picket signs and empowering chants. Students passing by the flagpoles stopped to witness this movement and learn more about why the workers were on strike. For many it was a moment of curiosity, for some an impetus to organize in solidarity, for others they saw community.

When the members of UCI’s latino drama collective, Brown Bag Theatre Company set out to create a new project for the new school year, they looked to the strike and saw an opportunity to tell the stories of an often forgotten latino community on campus.

Brown Bag was founded at UCI by drama professor Lonnie Alcaraz with the purpose of gathering an ensemble of student performers on campus to produce critical and empowering work for the latino community. Because there is a small number of latino students in drama at UCI, Brown Bag provides a unique space to engage with community based theatre. With Brown Bag’s new project, Contra la Corriente/Against the Current, they are going beyond the students and bringing the stories and struggles of UCI service workers to the stage.

Third year drama graduate student Amanda Novoa and other members of Brown Bag Theatre wanted to find a way to create community engaged theatre, so they decided to reach out to the service workers on campus. She began contacting some workers who were active in organizing the strike. Though it took some work to find access into the workers’ community, the members of Brown Bag began to bridge the gap between latino workers and students on campus. With the help of Humberto Xocua, the service worker who has served as the liaison between the two groups, Amanda was able to organize social events for the students and workers such as soccer games and a Dia De Los Muertos party.

In building this community, they were able to gain trust and understanding, which was essential for the success of this project. Brown Bag began hosting story circles with the workers in small gatherings. It was there that the workers began to share their personal narratives.

Touching upon everything from their labor struggle at UCI to their family lives, it was an eye opening experience for both the students and workers involved. These emotional sessions gave the Brown Bag students insight and inspiration for their show and the workers connected on a deeper level with their colleagues.

The team of writers from Brown Bag discussed the stories that were shared and tuned into the most prevalent themes throughout the workers’ narrative.

“We thought of what is important and absolutely necessary to tell the story, what has to make it in the play” said Novoa, “And of course, the strike is apart of that, and their family lives, the love and warmth of the service workers and the fact that they have struggles and have families.”

Contra la Corriente/Against the Current, is both in Spanish and English, which is unheard of for a UCI production. The play is completely inspired by these stories the workers shared with Brown Bag members. All of the characters and events depicted in the show are inspired by experiences here on campus. Though most of the characters are played by students, some of the service workers in the project also act in the performance. Brown Bag hosted workshops with the workers to discuss characters and scenarios to get a better understanding of how to portray their experience on stage.

The show follows workplace developments as the characters in the play begin organizing the strike. However, what is even more poignant is the way that the show also captures their personal lives and the way their work impacts their families and wellbeing. This aspect of the play highlights the project’s purpose: to humanize the workers struggle and share their narratives.

This authenticity is made complete with the original set, props, and costume design modeled after the strike and the workers. The set emulates the architecture found around campus to bring UCI to life on stage. While the actors are on stage, projections and video bits of the last year’s strike play on stage during moments of protest.

The students producing Contra la Corriente/Against the Current, kept the workers involved every step of the way. From start to finish, this production continually serves the purpose of empowering and uniting the latino community on campus through art.

Contra la Corriente/Against the Current will be running this weekend in the Robert Cohen Theatre at UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts. Admission is pay what you can with showings at the following times: Friday, May 1st at 8PM, Saturday, May 2nd at 2PM and 8PM and Sunday, May 3rd at 2PM and 8PM.

For reservations contact BBTCReservations@gmail.com