“Art is not a mirror held up to reality

but a hammer with which to shape it.”

— Bertolt Brecht

I participated in a couple of moving theatrical events recently. I say that I participated, because I yelled, chanted political slogans, I laughed, I cried.

One, “Carta para que no me olvides” (“A letter, so that you won’t forget me”) happened in San Antonio, a sea-port located in Chile. The second one, “¡Viva, Viva Palestina!”, took place at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, in San Francisco (MCCLA).

Both performances can be classified as community theater. That categorization generally means that the shows were not professional. Nevertheless, although community theater performers might not be paid, their enthusiasm and commitment can be first rate.

In both countries the performances were free to the public. Coincidentally, each event only offered one performance, which can be another reality of community theater. Producing a show that asks for a long commitment from performers and technical supporters can be expensive.

Another commonality was that both shows were presented in Spanish, a more rare occurrence in the San Francisco theater scene. Perhaps the most salient commonality is that both productions were openly and proudly political. Both presentations seemed to have the goal to offer a safe space for the expressions of ideas and feelings that most theaters tend to avoid, calling them “too political” or “too obvious”.

Nevertheless, on both occasions, those attending the performances, in Chile and in San Francisco, responded with enthusiasm and were moved to tears (in the Chilean case) or were inspired to eagerly scream in support of Palestine (in the case of ¡Viva, Viva Palestina!”). Those kinds of responses are a large reason for the participation in community theater. In a way, it is the payback for those who participate in that type of Theater.

In most theater schools (in most art schools in general), there is still a predominance of the notion that “you should not jam your ideas down peoples ‘throats”. As a result, generally speaking, subtlety triumphs over clarity. In those academic milieus, mixing Art and Politics is not advisable. Or it is to be approached with extreme caution. The way you approach (or avoid) a wild animal. The performances that I am writing about did not obey those rather conservative dogmas.

I love theater, but I am also aware that many people have never attended a theatrical performance. Professional or community. Theater, being “a live thing” can be intimidating. People who attend a performance for the first time might feel a bit afraid.

Uncertain as to which is the correct way to respond to what they are experiencing. Can I laugh or say something out loud? When should I applaud? Or boo?

The audience who filled the theater of the Cultural Center San Antonio, Chile, was invited to what the writer/director Mauricio Salazar Riquelme called “a theatrical exercise to evoke memories”. Specifically, memories of the barely 1,000 days of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, ended by the 9/11/1973 military Coup.

It was a relatively simple but extremely moving production. One young actress (the compelling Giulia Giuliani), was ably accompanied by a trio of musicians, Ricardo Chacón and the brothers Víctor and Guillermo Pizarro. The story focuses on the character played by Giulia, who interpreted a young woman who moves to Santiago, the capital of Chile, from a small southern city. She wanted to experience the hope-filled years of the Allende government. In Santiago, she gets a job as a singer in a group, formed — of course! — by the 3 musicians. In the process of advancing the story, many iconic songs from those three brief years are interpreted.

Although the play did not have a happy ending, it gave the audience the chance to hear words and music that were dear to them. During and after the performance, many audience members not just openly sung … they also openly cried. I was one of them.

In San Francisco, the presenting group was the “Community Theatre Company”. (La Compañía de Teatro Comunitario). It is led by Berta Hernández, who teaches community theater at the MCCLA. In “¡Viva, Viva Palestina!”, the audience members became an integral part of the event.

They came prepared to support, to chant, covered with Palestinian kaffiyeh scarves to express their solidarity. The main focus of the play, billed as “a theater performance and Open Forum”, was the struggle of the Palestinian people. It offered a healing space for so many of us who feel outraged, sad … and impotent to end the continuous cruelty still being carried out by the Zionist government of Israel upon the people of Gaza, in Palestine. Helped, shamefully, by the US government.

Both in Chile and in the Mission District of San Francisco, those of us who went to the theater were eager to applaud, to join in song, to express ourselves out loud, or to console each other. As Berta Hernández expressed, after the show: “Theater can act as a savior, when everything seems lost.”

There might be better professional productions, but very few will be able to elicit responses from the audiences how these two community productions were able to do.