“Growing up I would listen and dance to Plena y Bomba,” said student Imani White, performing a monologue as musician Janetza Miranda while swaying a floral maxi skirt back and forth with one hand, the other on her heart. “Before all the Spanish music you could think of, before Reggaeton, before Merengue, before Salsa, there was Plena y Bomba. Plena y Bomba is the root of all Puerto Rican music. Plena y Bomba was the universal way the slaves would communicate.” Janetza Miranda, a Newark native, is a singer/songwriter of Puerto Rican descent.
This fall, the students of Lillian Ribeiro’s "From Page to Stage" class, offered through the Rutgers-NJIT Theatre Arts program, worked with 16 Newark area artists to bring their life stories onstage. The students, most of whom are not theatre majors, spent the semester learning about play analysis, script writing, narrative voice, and how to work with the community to tell their stories accurately and sensitively.
Each student was paired up with an artist, with whom they met twice at Index Art Center in downtown Newark, first to build relationships through theater exercises, and again to engage in deeper conversation through one-on-one interviews. The students then worked closely with their artist to transcribe the interviews into a narrative monologue. The artists and Ribeiro provided feedback along the way in order to ensure that they were true to the person being represented. The narratives all received final approval from the participating artists before the students shared them on stage as monologues.
On December 11, 2019, the students performed their monologue at the Bradley Hall Theatre as their final project with many of the artists in the audience.
The participating artists were all local but otherwise ranged in age, race, ethnicity, backgrounds and worked in varied media including music, painting, sculpture, spoken word, and poetry. The students took on the persona of their artist as they performed their monologue.
Many of the artists expressed what a great experience it was seeing their stories performed. Layqu Nuna Yawar, one of the artists who participated in the project, said he felt a connection with the student who performed his story, Justin Flores, because they shared a similar background. Layqa Nuna Yawar is a migrant artist, muralist and educator born in Ecuador and based out of Newark. His large-scale murals, paintings and projects question injustice, racism and xenophobia, while celebrating cross-cultural identity and migration in order to amplify the silenced narratives of people of color around the Americas and the world.
"The students were completely engaged and inspired by doing theatre work at Index Art Center with Newark artists," said Ribiero. "Although it was challenging work, engaging with the community in this way was one of the highlights of the course for my students. Both students and Newark artists were able to foster authentic connections while working collaboratively to create new work for the stage based on stories told in first accounts."
All photos by Isaac Jiménez.