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This Political Theater Troupe Puts Sexual Harassment and LGBTQ Rights Center Stage

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC uses performance and play to address discrimination, create change and build community.
Theatre of the Oppressed, BK Reader
Photo credit :Ali Garber for TONYC

On Thursday, lawmakers, activists and civic-minded community members gathered at Brooklyn Borough Hall to address issues like sexual harassment, and racial and gender-based discrimination. The gathering, however, wasn't a town hall or a community meeting — it was a performance.

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC) presented "Compromising Positions: Stay & Pay," as part of its Legislative Theater series, an interactive, policy-based play which showcases actors from affected communities bringing their experiences of oppression to life.

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC uses performance and play to address discrimination, create change and build community.
TONYC Actor Tatiana plays Oprah, a New Yorker dealing with sexual harassment at her internship. Photo credit: A. Williamson for BK Reader

Originally created by Brazilian dramatist and political activist Augusto Boal in the 1970's, the Theatre of the Oppressed is designed to engage audiences in political and social activism. TONYC Founder and Director Katy Rubin trained with Boal in Rio de Janiero before she returned to NYC to found her own troupe in 2011.

Thursday's play presented scenes from a racist job interview, a sexual harassment-heavy internship and one gender nonbinary character's struggle to use a fitting room.

According to TONYC Actor Charlie Whitewolf, the subject matter is true to life.

A "spec-actor" plays out a phone call with an unhelpful HR department. Photo: Alex Williamson for BK Reader

"I was born a female," said the gender nonbinary actor. "There've been times I've been told to go to the men's bathroom. And then, they would see my chest and tell me to go to the women's bathroom. There's been a lot of 'you can't go here, you can't do that,' and treating me like a creep," they said.

After the play, audience members, also dubbed "spect-actors," broke out into groups to suggest policies curbing harassment and discrimination. Some "spect-actors" took the stage to create scenes with more empowering outcomes.

The audience then discussed policy ideas put forth at previous performances, such as "Gender-neutral bathrooms should be available in every building," and "Harassment should be handled by external, independent companies," and then voted on their favorite solutions.

TONYC performances may sound like community catharsis, but it's more than that. In the audience were also "policy rangers," city officials including NYC Department of Probation Commissioner Ana Bermúdez, Deputy Commissioner at the Office of Labor and Policy Standards Liz Vladeck and advocates from advocacy groups like Survived and Punished NY, and The Center for Anti-Violence Education. The policy rangers spoke about the practicality of the audience's suggestions, voiced their support and discussed laws already underway.

Past Legislative Theater performances have inspired real policy shifts, such as allowing New Yorkers to designate their gender without medical records on IDNYC cards, and the creation of an interagency city task force to address the needs of homeless LGBTQ youth.

An audience member reacts to the performance. Photo credit: A. Williamson for BK Reader

In addition to the civic benefits, TONYC actors also find community and support through Legislative Theater. According to Whitewolf, taking part in TONYC has given their life direction.

"Theater of the Oppressed has become like my family," Whitewolf said. "They've helped to raise me in a way. It's like, 'Here's a paycheck, here's the adult world, and here's some support.'"

TONYC is performing year-round and citywide. The next Brooklyn performance, titled "Welcome to Hostile School," will take place at Pioneer Works on December 6. For other upcoming events and information, go here.