Philly Fringe 2017: Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed’s ‘Borderlands’

Finding freedom

Bambi was recently released from a correctional facility in western Pennsylvania. Far from any family or friends, with nothing but a check for money to cover one bus ticket, she had 24 hours to make it to a court-mandated halfway house in Philadelphia. “They take you, they want to reform you, and they put you out the door like that,” she told the packed house at Borderlands, a Fringe show from Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed presented at Asian Arts Initiative.

Borderlands' logo makes a strong statement at this "Forum Theater Event." (Photo by Natasha Cohen-Carroll.)

At the station, Bambi discovered she didn’t have quite enough money for the bus ticket, and prison administrators were no help. If a stranger had not given her the money to cover her bus ticket to Philly, she would have risked violating her parole.

Breaking the fourth wall

The show was performed under the umbrella of the current Asian Arts exhibition Hurry Up and Wait (here’s our WNWN preview), which explores immigration.

Borderlands’ poignant title image, a flowering morning-glory vine tangled in a chainlink fence, is projected onto the stage. The show features Bambi, another formerly incarcerated performer named Crystal, a small ensemble of additional actors, and director/moderator Hariprasad Kowtha (who worked with artistic support from Paloma Izirarry).

The show’s description asks you to “break the fourth wall” (a particularly apt invitation in a performance about the challenges re-entering citizens face). Its highly interactive format is risky, but pays off with resounding audience emotional investment.

A store, a church, and City Hall

The show includes three brief vignettes (drawn from true-life experiences). People advocating for a friend soon to be released from prison seek a job for her from a supermarket manager, a pastor, and an aide to an unnamed Philadelphia city councilman. These figures express support but all have different reasons for being unwilling to help. Providing a reference for someone formerly incarcerated feels like a risk; there are tax complications; the “infrastructure” to train and supervise just isn’t there.

Kowtha opened a dialogue with the audience for ideas on how to combat resistance to offering someone a second chance, and suggestions flowed. He invited some of the speakers onstage to improvise a second version of each of the three previous scenes, implementing their ideas.

Putting solutions on the spot

What followed was an absorbing lesson on the power of imagination. Initially shocked to be singled out to speak onstage,a udience members quickly entered into the improvised dialogue with gusto. Cheered by the audience, the impromptu performers argued with brash and creative tactics as if the livelihood of a friend actually were on the line.

The audience volunteers illustrated principles like volunteering as a path to building career experience. They also noted that providing a reference for someone else doesn’t necessarily put the person providing the reference at risk, and that an employer could politically engage whole new communities and create more taxpayers in one fell swoop. These improvised scenes demonstrated the impact of ordinary people’s ideas and advocacy if only they believe in their own power to change the status quo.

The stories in Borderlands aren’t hypothetical. Bambi is still looking for full-time work; Crystal, who was arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison at age 16, has worked her way up the ladder at a local supermarket over the last five years (she is also a captivating and versatile stage presence).

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