Two years ago Francisco Severiano of Mexico was a passenger on an Ashland bus when a young adult woman started kicking his chair, saying she “hates Mexicans” and telling him to “go back to Mexico.” At the time, Francisco did not speak English. He had to endure the humiliation in silence.
The incident became the story of a short play for Literacy Theater titled “The Mean Girl on the Bus,” which has been performed several times for local audiences. Literacy Theater is an interactive theatrical experience created to help communities solve problems surrounding cultural and literacy issues. The skit is serious in its presentation of situations. It always ends abruptly at a point of crisis; the actors then stay in character and answer questions from the audience.
Literacy Theater is sponsored by the Rogue Community College Adult Basic Skills Program and INTERCAMBIO.Oregon, an organization dedicated to supporting intercultural arts. The volunteer actors are community members including students and teachers. I got together with four Literacy Theater actors who are students in English as a Second Language and Adult Basic Skills classes at Rogue Community College. They include: Simone Dias of Brazil, Shu Yang of China, Jesus Castro of Guadalajara, Mexico, and Severiano of Mexico City. We met in an ESL classroom on the Rogue Community College Riverside Campus in Medford.
EH: What audience reactions have you noticed while performing Literacy Theater?
SD: After each presentation of “The Mean Girl on the Bus,” people always ask, “If it happened to you, how would you feel?” I feel that people think, “It could happen to me if I go to another place where I don’t speak the language,” and then, “I need to be helpful to somebody that is learning a new language.”
EH: It makes people more sensitive?
SY: Yes, even myself. At first I didn’t understand the story of “The Mean Girl on the Bus,” because I didn’t know that these kinds of things were still happening in the United States today. I didn’t think that people treated each other like that anymore because the country is great; we elected the president; and people are OK with who you are.
FS: It’s very sad to find this situation, especially in public places.
EH: When you performed the play for ESL students, some of the students got angry.
JC: It hurt people’s feelings.
FS: Talking after the play is really helpful. We notice and think about how we treat people.
EH: Do you have any more thoughts about Literacy Theater and its effect on audiences?
SY: When people see the theater, they can see from different sides how people feel. They see not only their own side, if they have a good life, but they think about people who are having trouble. They look at things in a different way.
SD: They can see outside of their own lives. They can think that they have this option, and that option, and compare them, and see what is better. They have a different vision.
FS: I think Literacy Theater is working for me, in my life, because I can express my feelings. Literacy Theater helps both the people who are watching and the people who are acting. It helps both ways.