Performers interact with Bronxites to rethink mass incarceration

Open Program performers and guests interact through song and dance at the Andrew Freedman Home. Photo by Sarah Matusek.

Napoleon Felipe, 34, works for a literary magazine published by the South Bronx Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON) probation office. This weekend, at the Andrew Freedman Home, he’ll perform his poem “Conspiracy,” which reflects his life on probation since 2011—a decade of supervision for a non-violent crime.

“After some time—interacting with probation officers, probationers, requirements that I’m learning that we have to live up to—it just seemed really cumbersome,” said the poet in a gentle voice. “It’s almost as if they don’t want you to be better.”

Felipe has been rehearsing for “Will Be Heard,” a free public performance devised by New Yorkers in collaboration with Open Program, an international theater group, as part of a six-week residency at the Andrew Freedman Home. The project marks Open Program’s third year visiting the borough and first attempt at creating a show with community members around issues of mass incarceration.

NeON is a network of community organizations, government agencies, local businesses, and local residents focused on connecting probation clients who live in the target neighborhood to opportunities, resources and services.

Headquartered in Pontedera, Italy, Open Program is one of two teams at the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski, a renowned Polish theater director who died in 1999, and Thomas Richards, the current artistic director. Associate director Mario Biagini helms a 10-actor ensemble whose countries of origin range from Brazil to France to Lebanon, with the goal of using “performance as a tool for inter-human contact and personal transformation.”

Through Workcenter, which he joined 30 years ago, Biagini inherited a performance practice centered on songs of the African diaspora. Biagini, who is white, admits he sometimes wrestles with the question of cultural appropriation.

“The fact that I am Italian plays into this,” as opposed to creating the work as an American, says Biagini. “I think that we in Europe have a relationship to slavery, as in the U.S., but it’s much less talked about.”

The rigor of his group’s approach to the songs, which they’ve been studying since 2007, and their dedication to long-term relationships in the Bronx helps, he says.

“This is not a tourist trip,” adds the director, who greets his Bronx collaborators with hugs. “It lasts years.”

Fifteen years ago, Biagini struck up a friendship with Roger Repohl, the former music director of the Church of St. Augustine (since 2012, St. Augustine – Our Lady of Victory in Claremont). The predominantly black parish’s gospel choir forged a fellowship with the theater company.

As Biagini and his group have traveled the U.S. through artistic residencies, they have established relationships with African-American congregations in Florida and New York. Audience members who have supported their work have made the group aware of how mass incarceration impacts these communities.

New York City’s incarceration rate has declined by more than 50 percent during the past two decades—bucking the national trend—but disproportionate imprisonment of African-American and Latino populations remains a reality in the Bronx.
To prep for the residency, some Open Program members arrived this summer from Italy to find collaborators—performers, activists, experts—and gather research to inform the rehearsal process.

“In the United States, we witness a new, or rather renewed, attack on the progress that has been made against discrimination and oppression, in a society that is still racially structured and divided by class and exploitation,” reads Open Program’s Facebook event for the performance. The group’s research showed that endemic racism in the country contributed to ongoing police brutality and mass incarceration.

Open Program presents “Will Be Heard” tonight, November 10 and 12 at 7 p.m. in the Andrew Freedman Home. On Saturday, a 4 p.m. performance at West-Park Presbyterian Church in Manhattan will precede a conversation on mass incarceration, which the group hopes will spur networking, awareness, and brainstorming for next steps.

Two of Saturday’s speakers include Andrew Freedman Home director, Walter Puryear, and Mott Haven Reformed Church’s Pastor Patricia Sealey, whose ministry serves children of incarcerated parents. Urban Art Beat, Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, CLOSErikers and JustLeadershipUSA are also event partners.