“We demand that the time is now for our city and world to be more inspired, to intentionally listen to the voices of the folks who have been traditionally kept out from mainstream spaces. We must continue to cultivate a culture of access, advocacy, and appreciation for the arts. Art is a tool for empathy and collaboration. We believe that if we create more affirmative and identifiable experiences in theatrical spaces ,more people will engage in the process of their own liberation.”
So states the mission of the Power Street Theatre Company, a theatrical organization founded by this week’s Portrait, Gabriela Sanchez.
The Philly-based company is run by women of color and was founded in 2012. A Philadelphia native, Sanchez graduated from the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and majored in theater at Temple University. Starting at age 15, she worked for the Department of Recreation over the course of several years as an actress, teaching artist and manager with Conflict Resolution Theater.
Sanchez was formerly the director of education at Norris Square Neighborhood Project, and the former cultural enrichment and facility manager at Taller Puertorriqueño. She has performed with Plays and Players, InterAct Theatre Company, Painted Bride Art Center, Philadelphia Dramatists Center, Philadelphia Young Playwrights and PSTC. She recently recieved the Knight Foundation’s Emerging City Champions Fellowship.
PGN: Tell me about the place you grew up.
GS: I lived in West Philly near Baltimore Avenue with my parents and older sister, but she went to college — Yale — when I was 6. We were the only Latinos on the block; however, it was a very diverse area. I was exposed to a lot of different cultures, languages and tastes, which was very influential for me as an artist, as a human being and how I think about the world. At the same time, my parents ran a 24-hour business at the airport, so I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s in North Philly. It was in a predominantly POC and Latina neighborhood and most of my extended family was there. So even though my home, my foundation was in West, North Philly is where I played and scraped my knees and learned how to ride a bike.
PGN: You went to CAPA. When did you first discover your love of the arts?
GS: I come from an artistic family. My mother is a phenomenal painter, something she discovered in her 40s, but she’s always had an appreciation for the visual arts. My father’s very good with architecture and numbers — he’s good at envisioning a space, and my sister’s a playwright. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a performer. I wasn’t a singer, I was a pretty good dancer, but I’m a plus-sized woman — and I’ve been plus-sized since birth — and I knew early on that dance spaces weren’t always welcoming for my body even though I was good at it. But theater allowed me to tell stories and even dance or sing a little. It’s been a blessing to always know what I wanted to do. And to know that my purpose was going to go beyond just the acting.
PGN: Which leads us to Power Street Theater — I would imagine that as a person of color, it was hard to find roles that would suit you.
GS: Yeah, I mean going to CAPA and Temple, it was very diverse, but often times that diversity is relegated to black and white. That gray area for Latin and Asian and other brown people often got overlooked. I wasn’t being represented or validated and there were many others like me. Power Street was founded out of my rage about the whole situation and the realization that I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. I wanted to create a truly multicultural theater group for women. It’s been six years and we’re still here.
PGN: When did you come out?
GS: I’ve known since I was little that I was queer. A great thing about being in performing-arts schools and spaces was that they were very affirming. Though there is some pushback because I identify as bisexual, it’s still not something that I feel is fully accepted in the gay community: “You’ll figure it out one day and pick a side.” So I’ve just adopted the term queer for myself to avoid those people and conversations that just become emotional labor that I don’t feel the need to engage in.
PGN: What are other challenges you’ve faced?
GS: Dyslexia was probably the scariest thing to deal with because it’s a fear I have to conquer every day. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read, but it’s one thing reading in private compared to doing a cold read for an audition. To this day, I feel like I’m going to die any time I have to do it. But theater has pushed me to face my fears and to realize that this is a disability that is never going to go away. My whole life I felt that if I just worked harder, it would get better. But I learned that I have to stand in my truth that this is part of me, something that I’ll have to navigate but it won’t stop me from doing what I love.
PGN: What’s on the horizon?
GS: I have a piece called Pa’lante. It’s part of the First Person Arts Festival and will be performed at the Fringe Festival Theater on Nov. 11 and 12. It’ll be my biggest challenge as a director and it’s the first time that First Person is doing a lineup of Latinx stories. They saw the most recent production at Power Street, “Las Mujeres,” and liked it enough to invite me.
PGN: Why do you do what you do?
GS: We do what we do because it is necessary, urgent and beautiful. There’s a myth that people of color don’t support the arts. I often find that when I’m in traditional theater spaces doing a panel or having coffee with folks, I’ll hear, “We’re having a tough time connecting to the POC community” or “They’re just not coming out to see theater,” but the problem is that outside small groups like ours, you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman of color in a leadership position or even on an administrative level in any of the larger theater or arts organizations. We’ve had many conversations about equity, inclusion and diversity, but too many times they only think on the surface level. Putting some actors on stage with a diverse cast is not going to lead to the systemic change that needs to happen. But if you have POCs in leadership positions, we are going to know how to talk to our communities and get people engaged. The success of Power Street is that we are the community we’re serving, right? So when I go out and talk to folks, they feel my passion — they get on board. I know how to get people excited and how to create a space of belonging for them. Putting flyers in a gentrified coffee shop is not going to bring our people out. I have seen a slight shift in the last year, so I have hope that things will get better, but they’re really going to have to make some systemic changes.
PGN: For sure.
GS: At Power Street, we have a whole different model. We’re a collective and make decisions together. We empow… Strike that — we support each other. I’m trying to move away from words like “empower” because we already are powerful women. In grant proposals, they always want to hear words like “marginalized” and “empowering.” They want to hear that we’re saving people or fixing a problem. But I have to learn how to shift my narrative and the way I talk about myself and this community that I love and not use terminology that insinuates that we are marginalized or less than. And it works. Our last show sold out every single performance. People came from all over — mainstream theater people who finally came after years; old people, young people, people with disabilities — it was beautiful and contagious. [Laughing] Our audiences are untraditional. They engage with you. If you ask a question on stage, they are going to answer.
PGN: I went to Emerson College and remember doing a show with the Black Student Union. It was in a very intimate theater, and I was very close to the front row doing a very emotional scene. One of my friends who we called “The Church Lady” was in the first row. After every line I said, she’d loudly respond, “Oh yes girl! You tell him! That Suzi is giving him the business!” It took all my acting skills to keep it together.
GS: Yes! And that’s the thing. We had to learn that too. Our first show we were like, “Holy shit!” and had to train ourselves to be prepared for the audience to be such an active part of the show. When you’re at a mainstream theater, there’s a certain etiquette; you’re supposed to be quiet and not respond to what you’re seeing. That all goes out the window when you come into the community, right? But that’s when the magic happens! There was a specific moment that shifted my life. Our first production was called “Minority Land,” which we are going to do again next year, and there was a scene with people protesting. The sign I was holding read, “Honk if you can’t pay your rent” and one guy shouted out a large honk. Then other people started joining in. And I had to make a decision: Do I continue on as we rehearsed, or do I acknowledge what’s going on because they’re part of our world now? So I made a honking noise back and more people started honking! Everyone got caught up in the moment. I realized that Power Street was beyond me as a performer, beyond the collective — it was a dialogue between us and the audience and each other. In the six years since, we continue to discover what that looks like, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.