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Monday, March 24, 2008

Troupe builds community




They also get to travel, reveal the real New Haven

By Maria Garriga
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— Kneeling on a darkened stage, “Juan” realizes he has been evicted and his mother has abandoned him. In an agony-racked voice, the actor begins a rap soliloquy. Welcome to a new world of community theater brought to you by Bregamos of Fair Haven.
In its most prestigious performance to date, Bregamos will bring the hip-hop musical “Kingdom” to the Netherlands March 25 for an international theater festival. The theater group was one of only two theater companies asked to represent the United States at the International Community Arts Festival in the Netherlands, where they’ll be until Sunday performing the musical.
Rafael Ramos, by day deputy director of the Liveable City Initiative, by night a theater buff, started Bregamos in 2001.
Today, the repertory troupe has about 35 participants, most from Fair Haven. It has its first rehearsal space at Erector Square, 315 Peck St.
Ramos trained many of these amateur actors and stagehands in lighting, sound and carpentry. Local theater professionals volunteer at Bregamos to teach stagecraft.
Ramos became addicted to the excitement generated by theater productions when he helped launch House of Tribes, an experimental community theater, in 1994.
Ramos felt Fair Haveners needed an introduction to drama, not by watching it, but by creating it. Theater could reach them because their own lives had so much drama, but it was a drama distinctly different from plays written by Neil Simon, Eugene O’Neil or George Bernard Shaw.
These were dramas about immigrants coping with gang violence, tremendous poverty and haphazard education. Like all dramas, they showed people facing moral dilemmas, dysfunctional relationships, and the search for hope and meaning.
He found ways to link to drama by selecting plays that drew inspiration from situations that arise in Fair Haven, and by selecting actors and stagehands from the neighborhood with no previous experience in theater.
“It’s medicinal. It makes people question their community and their lifestyles,” said Michael Improta, 16, of North Haven, who plays Juan.
Through the theater, actors learn to inhabit a character, speak in the voice of another and understand lives and perspectives of others.
“This is a community-building exercise. That’s the main goal,” Ramos stressed.
The repertory also gives people from different generations, social strata and communities a chance to interact.
Before he attended Yale University, Gabriel Hernandez, 22, of New Jersey, occasionally played basketball with the Latin Kings. Perhaps that gives him inspiration as he plays Andre, a young gang leader pushing his friend, Juan, to join the gang and kill as a sign of his loyalty.
Hernandez now studies at Yale’s urban education program, which prepares participants for teaching careers in challenging inner-city environments.
The amateurs work alongside a handful of professional actors, such as Vanessa Soto, 25, of New Haven. “Kingdom” offers Bregamos a chance to illuminate its main purpose as a community theater that reflects the reality of its neighborhood to people who inhabit it.
Award-winning playwright Aaron Jafferis, who set “Kingdom” in Fair Haven, where he now lives in the Fair Haven Heights section, is a New Haven native who graduated from Hillhouse High School in 1994.
Since then he has lived in Mexico City; Berkeley, Calif.; and New York before returning here, where he feels most at home.
Jafferis brought hip-hop into the play as a way of drawing a new, younger, more urban audience to theater, but the resulting play brings theater closer to the real world, too.
The gang violence and poverty of classmates from his high school years dominates the play, where mother abandons her child, where women must fight for respect, and where loyalty means pulling a trigger.
Jafferis set the play in his hometown of New Haven because “it has all the problems of a big city, but its small enough that we have solve them.”
Maria Garriga can be reached at mgarriga@nhregister.com or 789-57In the past, the company has staged plays such as “The Metro

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