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Niche theater focuses on inmates and immigrants

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 18, 2010 - When St. Louisans think of niche theater, what likely comes to mind are New Jewish Theatre, The Black Rep, That Uppity Theatre Company's DisAbility Project or New Line Theatre, which only produces musicals.

Less familiar to many is an outfit that pulls together St. Louis' diverse communities to promote healing, and a program that puts prisoners in the spotlight.

Gitana Productions: Acting Out For Justice

A global vision of music, dance and drama led sociologist and social worker Cecilia Nadal to found Gitana productions in 1996. Along with St. Louis-born former Alvin Ailey dancer Danny Clark, Nadal sought to bring diversity and its issues to life onstage. According to Nadal, the arts can put a face on otherwise dry statistics. As an example, she cites these figures: 79 percent of African Americans live in poverty at some time in their lives as opposed to 17 percent of whites.

"You might not really understand the implications of that, but if I had onstage an older black woman talking to white woman at bus stop about their lives and the black woman says, 'Well you know I once was a CEO at a corporation but I didn't use my money right; I helped my family and now I have nothing' -- that kind of gets to you a little bit differently," Nadal said.

Both student actors and professionals like Briston Ashe take the stage in Gitana's performances. In Gitana's 2008 production of "Complacency of Silence: Darfur," Ashe played a young teenager who is raped and attacked by terrorists, and then shunned by the man she loves, but eventually escapes victimhood. Ashe, who now lives in New York City, said the experience changed her life, giving her a broader perspective as she handles the daily hassles of her comparatively easy existence.

"People are going through horrible things every day and still finding a way to be triumphant," Ashe said. "Gitana is bringing the reality of what's going on in the world to the stage and allowing regular people like me a personal view of what others in the world are going through."

"Complacency of Silence: Darfur" was nominated for five 2008 Kevin Kline Awards; in 2009, Gitana's "My Heart Is Always Shaking" was nominated in the outstanding new play or musical category. Next up for Gitana is "Eye on the Sparrow," an original production based on real-life unsung heroes of St. Louis. Running May 21 through June 6, "Eye on the Sparrow" also focuses on St. Louis' issues around social inequality.

"I have always felt the largest issue in St. Louis is with social conflict," Nadal said. "Race is part of it, no question, but the biggest part of it is the economic disparity irrespective of race."

Looking toward the future, Nadal is contemplating a production about the difficulty of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in the African American community.

"We always want to bring something to the table that people have not seen before," Nadal said.

Shakespeare Behind Bars

Never in his wildest dreams did St. Louisa ex-convict Edgar Evans think he'd do Shakespeare. But three years into a 10-year prison sentence, he found himself onstage uttering the likes of, "O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven." It wasn't of his criminal offense that Evans spoke, but his plot as King Claudius to kill his brother King Hamlet.

Evans stumbled into his debut role as Shakespeare's King of Denmark after spotting a flyer in 1998 for Prison Performing Arts, a multi-discipline literacy and performing arts program for incarcerated adults and children

"I volunteered for lighting and sound," Evans said. "They asked me to read, and I did, and that's how I got into the acting part of it."

The nearly 20-year-old PPA prepares inmates for release through the disciplines of a theater performance. A recent evaluation demonstrates PPA's effectiveness. Reading levels of PPA participants increased by 21 percent and their tolerance for diversity rose by 12 percent. Evans can personally testify to the sense of personal commitment he gained as an actor.

"If you got in trouble and you got put in solitary confinement, or you're on restriction and you couldn't be there, it caused the whole group to be off with somebody missing because everybody had to wait on you," Evans said.

While the general public can attend three shows a year, most of the performances are in front of an inmate audience. PPA artistic director Agnes Wilcox, whose earlier theater programs spawned the program, called PPA an intellectual and physical challenge that gives actors an opportunity to become a better person.

"Two weeks ago an actor said to audience, 'I spent so much time working on this character that I realize I can spend the same amount of time being my best possible self'," Wilcox said.

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer who regularly reports on the St. Louis area theater scene in the Beacon.

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