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Latino troupe looks at ethnic identity during Political Theatre Festival

Do you ever get tired of shaking your stick in the air? Not as if there isn’t plenty to rail against, but do you get just plain ole tired?

I certainly do.

When misguided policies, politicking and useless rhetoric have me down in the dumps and frustrated, I like to have other people do the stick-shaking for me — and I like to have them make me laugh, cry and think while they do it.

Since its founding in 1992, Teatro del Pueblo, a St. Paul-based Latino theater company, has taken the hot topics facing the Latino and immigrant communities and put its unique spin on them.

Latino theater group takes on hot topics
For the past seven years, Teatro has offered such commentary during the annual Political Theatre Festival. Teatro brings to the stage a distinctive look at the politics of identity among the Latino community in the United States and abroad. As a result, Minnesota audiences get to hear a creative take on all those misguided policies, the politicking and the useless rhetoric.

The festival, which begins Thursday, runs through March 2 as a collaboration among Teatro, Intermedia Arts, the Resource Center of the Americas and the University of Minnesota. It features seven new plays commissioned from around the nation. The shows are mostly in English, with bits of Spanish here and there.

This year’s lineup includes “American Latino!” an interactive singing piece a la “American Idol”; “Hurricane in a Glass,” an exploration of lost culture, Alzheimer’s and Cuba; and “Mucho Latino!” a comedic tale of Latino identity and stereotypes.

A festival schedule is available here, and you can track the festival progress here.

Teatro director discusses festival and mission
Amid the final flurry of preparing for Thursday’s opening night, Teatro director Al Justiano took a moment to discuss his ideas behind this year’s festival as well as the theater’s mission and future.

MP: Tell me about the productions this year. What are some of the connecting themes?

JUSTIANO: This year’s Political Theatre Festival theme, identity, was deliberately left broad, so that it would not constrain the different artistic manifestations of the term. Identity means so many things to so many people that narrowing the scope was difficult. This year’s submissions and commissions hail from many different parts of the country and represent diverse views on identity. There is identity as defined by the sport [baseball] that is considered a national passion, there is the language that identifies a people, there are the stereotypes that define a culture, and there are traditions that add richness to a society. Each one is as valid as the next.

MP: In a political year, the messages you choose are particularly important. What do you want folks to take away with them after watching the productions? Do those messages resonate in a political arena?

JUSTIANO: We pride ourselves on allowing our audiences to open their minds to a different point—of—view, regardless if they agree with it. We feel that the festival serves as a portal to understanding some aspects of Latin America. The plays are the catalyst that fuel post—presentation discussion with our interactive pieces. The interactive pieces have been a hit with our audiences. We have even decided to use these techniques in our other main—stage productions.

MP: Even when it’s not an election year, Latinos are often depicted in a narrow way in the media. As a Latino theater company, what are some of the most important messages for you to get out there?

JUSTIANO: Latinos come in all shapes and sizes. Many times, they differ on how they perceive a particular issue, or in the way they express themselves, but they all share a pride in their ties to Latin America, as well as the rhythm and tonality of the language and music. I would like our audience members to leave the theater with a sense of the diversity in America and a better understanding of the psyche of Latinos.

MP: If you could get this year’s presidential candidates to take away one message from your shows, what would it be?

JUSTIANO: That they would open up their canvas of understanding and open themselves to other people’s points of views. I strongly believe that if every politician had at sometime in their youth lived in a third world country or at least in a foreign country, we would be able to look at our national interest with new eyes and still achieve our goals as a nation.

MP: This is your 16th year as a company. As you look forward, where do you go from here?

JUSTIANO: I look at making the theater a midsize thriving institution whose work is known for its artistic excellence and a venue by which the Latino community, as well as the broader community, can learn about Latin America. I dream of building bridges of harmony and understanding between our nation and Latin America.

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