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Survivors of violence take to the stage

By Robert Hall, Special to the Daily Planet
Friday May 31, 2002

xA new kind of theater that thrusts real life movingly onto the stage will premier in Berkeley for the first time.  

Don’t expect "The Laramie Project" or "The Colour of Justice," in which professional actors mouth what people said months or years ago. The Soapstone "actors" are the actual participants in the harrowing stories they tell, as if Matthew Shepherd could be summoned from his bleak Wyoming grave to bear witness to his victimization. 

"This is just so powerful!" exclaimed Ruth Morgan, director of Community Works, a Berkeley-based non-profit organization committed to building fellowship through art and education.  

The company that walks this daring tightrope is called Soapstone Theater, and its genesis is just as surprising as its method. It grew out of the criminal justice system. Roberto Gutierre Varea, its director, had been teaching theater at the San Francisco County Jail for about a year when he got the chance to help five male ex-offenders develop a drama based on their experiences. The result, "Smoke and Mirrors," played to packed houses in various venues, including San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.  

This led Soapstone to invite women to work with them. That collaboration gave birth to "(Un)common Ground," which proved equally successful. A third project, "Boxing with Ghosts: 8 Tales of Death and Resurrection," just had a 3-night run in San Francisco, where leaders of Berkeley’s Domestic Violence Program saw it.  

As Morgan related, "They were so excited, they contracted to bring it here." 

Though the criminal justice system may seem focused on punishment, Soapstone Theater offers a hopeful sign of other means. Supported by the Sheriff’s Department, it aims at healing. Its actor/playwrights are male ex-offenders and women survivors of violence, who, as Varea says, "explore the impact violence has on perpetrators and survivors alike."  

But they don’t confine that exploration to the narrow bounds of self, but offer it to their community, in an act of what Ruth Morgan calls "restorative justice." 

Soapstone hopes art can redeem victims, victimizers and society, too.  

In "Boxing with Ghosts" we meet real people, Elijah, Mauryne, Raja, Walter, Jennifer, Ophelia, Juanita, Derrie. Survivors of addiction and anorexia, child abuse and prison riots, they don’t disguise their names or pull punches with the truth. Instead they offer their tales with scrupulous and moving honesty, describing what went down, while we witness their testimony in an almost tribal way.  

"We believe this builds community," Morgan said. Are we in the audience free of failure and loss? Aren’t we sometimes victimizers and victims, too? "We see our likeness in them,"Morgan said.  

But can art really heal? As one recovering addict says of his participation, "This play has helped me do a lot of healing. Yeah, it’s really hard on us, but it’s important for us to tell other people, I just want this to work."  

Another says, "Now I have a chance to be that loving, caring young man my grandmother always told me I could be." 

Tickets are $8 to $15. Sponsored by the California Arts Council and the City of Berkeley, it plays at the Berkeley Art Center, 1275 Walnut Street, once only, on May 31, at 8 p.m.