This week Pangea World Theater presents their latest play, Curiosities, written by Ojibwe poet Heid Erdrich. The production is part of the larger work of the theater, which in many ways is about forming alliances with various communities of color and individuals who have lacked representation--both in society as a whole and in the artistic sphere.
"Collaborative politics is a very strong part of our proactive consciousness," says Dipankar Mukherjee, Pangea's Artistic Director, who also directed Curiosities. "As artists of color and as an organization of color, we are well versed in these politics." Pangea out of necessity knows how to negotiate with dominant culture, and the white organizations that serve as the gatekeepers for that culture.
Mukherjee remembers the atmosphere right after 9/11. At the time he was often mistaken for Arab, though he is Indian. At that same time he heard reports of Muslim children being openly harassed at school. He said he went to his contacts, who are also artists of color, hoping to do something, but received little support. People would ask him why he was getting involved. "In America, there's a lack of collaborative politics among people of color. There's no conscious working together."
He's trying to change that. Pangea actively seeks relationships with organizations from different communities. Last year the company co-produced productions with Teatro del Pueblo, a Latino theater company in St. Paul, and has made a commitment to pool resources with them for the next five years. "We've doubled our possibilities of employment," Mukherjee says. "We joined together, doing plays with a much larger cast, doubling our individual units as two organizations."
Al Justiniano, Artistic Director of Teatro del Pueblo, says that the two organizations are sort of inventing it as they go, learning how pooling resources can make each organization stronger. "As far as I know," he says, "there's no precedent for it." While Pangea and Teatro each maintain their own identity, they collaborate where their vision comes together, such as giving voice to the immigrant community, a goal that each organization shares. The partnership also allows each company to "push the envelope and take more risk" than they might have done in the past, according to Justiniano.
Pangea hosts a number of different programs that attempt to engage underrepresented communities. Their Indigenous Voices Series was created in 2001 to explore issues in the indigenous agenda, while their Voices of Exile series gives writers from immigrant and refugee communities a chance to develop works in both their own language and English for their own communities as well as the broader public. Their current production, Curiosities, was first workshopped during their Alternate Visions Series, which provides immigrant, minority, and Native American writers a chance to develop their craft leading to main stage production.
Curiosities looks at the historical phenomenon of Native Americans being taken to Europe and put on display as oddities. Erdrich's script turns the issue on its head, as Native Americans observe and document the "curious" European culture.
Mukherjee says he always remains conscious of the politics of space and representation in the work he does. "It is imperative," he says. Thus, he places special importance in working with the people from the community who are being represented. For this production, he has made sure that Erdrich was involved in the casting process. "We are so conscious of those politics," he says. "Otherwise historically what happens is that they're represented. They're never the primary voice -- never the documenters of their work."
Erdrich says that she's had a wonderful yet challenging experience working with Pangea. She has been particularly happy with how open all the performers have been, bringing their own voices to the piece.
Curiosities, which is part of the Catalyst Series, runs November 18 to 21 at Intermedia Arts, located at 2822 South Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12, with discounts for students, seniors, and groups of 10 or more.