Imagining the Other: How Through the Looking Glass connects communities through live storytelling.
By Jessica Salans
Performance poet Jerry Quickley (photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging, Inc.)
We knew things had to change and it would be us who changed everything. —Through the Looking Glass writer Benin Lemus
In 2009, while an artist-in-residence at Stanford University, Los Angeles performance poet Jerry Quickley conducted a series of workshops in which two communities separated by a vast social and economic divide — privileged Stanford students and the mostly low-income, troubled teens attending high school at Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center — wrote each others’ autobiographies.
Initially the groups wrote without knowing any personal facts about the other, but Quickley gradually had them incorporate actual biographical details. Eventually, he brought both together to meet their counterparts, and used the writing that emerged to create a stage play that was then performed before the public by the students themselves. The results proved powerful for the audience and transformative for the student-performers.
From that experiment, Quickley’s community devised-theater program Through the Looking Glass was born.
“The program design allows people to bring all of their beauty along with all of their shortcomings and the places they need to evolve,” Quickly said recently in Los Angeles. “And that’s very important because you can’t tell people, ‘Oh you don’t be a bigot and you don’t be a racist and you don’t be a misogynist. That doesn’t happen here in this program!’ How effective is that? You’re already inhibiting people, telling them stuff they can’t bring in — layered, nuanced, complex stuff that exists in the world they breathe in.”
The poet had brought Through the Looking Glass to the Kirk Douglas after being invited to be part of Center Theatre Group’s neighborhood-focused Community as Creators project, financed by a diversity grant from the James Irvine Foundation. The program also included El Teatro Campesino’s Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven.
This time, Through the Looking Glass brought together twenty-six participants representing the communities of Leimert Park in the southern area of Los Angeles and Montebello in eastern Los Angeles. As in Stanford, Quickley guided them through the program’s six-month-long workshops with the resulting show being directed by reg e gaines in three February performances: in Montebello, Leimart Park and finally at the Kirk Douglas in Culver.
“Ultimately,” Quickley said, “what I want is a model that allows them to bring in everything that exists in their world…all the things that live and breathe in the world that they’re in. By allowing people to bring in the totality of their thoughts — not just the positive ones, not just the ones we reward you for socially but to bring in everything … and allow them over the course of the project to decide ultimately what has value and what doesn’t. What should I be holding onto for this person? “
“Through the Looking Glass” in performance (photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging, Inc.)
According to CTG producer Diane Rodriguez, the communities are “very similar economically” with one community largely African American, the other primarily Latino, although as they dived further into Montebello, they found a large Asian and Armenian population as well. She wondered, “Do [the communities] have misconceptions about each other and could we delve into that?”
Libby Rego, a Montebello Artistic Anchor for the program and an English teacher at Montebello High School said, “I think that Montebello is a community that is in desperate need of a voice and in desperate need of exposure into other voices.”
Discovering, exploring and owning one’s voice and story are at the core of Through the Looking Glass. And that process often bears some unexpected fruit. Quickley shared a text sent from a Montebello participant who, at the start of the process, had been in an alarmingly depressed state:
Good evening, Jerry. I needed to say how deeply appreciative I am to be a part of your wonderful collective. You and (director) reg and everyone involved changed my life in a dramatic way. I’ve come a long way and it’s all thanks to you and your project. It’s made me grow in ways I never knew I could and it made me look at myself and my life in a completely different way, an artistic way. I can’t thank you enough for … the magic of being a writer — and showing another side of me, to me.
“This is about communities finding their voices and in some cases finding new ways to live,” Quickley reflected, “finding a better life — and maybe, possibly even saving their lives.”
It’s an intriguing idea. Could theater offer “safe spaces” for people to not only share their stories but to also imagine the lives of people they have never met before? Could communities divided by combative police and economic inequities use the structure of Through the Looking Glass to manifest creative, empathetic dialogues in order to discover and deepen the human bonds we all naturally share?
In the final play Quickley compiled from the writings of the Leimert Park and Montebello participants, a fiery, tap-dancing Myshell Tabu slams poetic lines in a soft, blue-lit stage left. A large projection screen above upstage center reads, “The Future.” Tabu spits words written by Lynzie Glover, an 18-year-old UCLA freshman.
“We are free and know how to unshackle our mental chains. As people, we are accepting change, we aren’t afraid or opposed to curing our diseases of the mind, diseases that have been imposed upon us through a curse. … My generation did this. We grew tired of the injustice; the massacres of our bodies for profit, the destruction of lives, the government’s lies, so we tore down the shadows with our light, and rebuilt everything. This is our utopia.”