Sitting in a circle inside a community performance space in Richmond, not everyone seemed entirely comfortable with the task at hand — sharing intimate feelings in front of complete strangers. The roughly thirty participants were mostly Black and Latino youth, along with a smattering of community leaders and a few outsiders, like myself. But as each person took his or her turn, moments of honest reflection slowly emerged, and by the end, one young man stood to share his commitment to the group: A promise to connect to a family member serving a life sentence in prison. The earnest and solemn vow silenced the room.
The healing circle, held last week, was one of three workshops tied to the performance of Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo, a play opening on Thursday at the East Bay Center for Performing Arts in Richmond, where the healing circle was also held. The play's author, San Francisco resident and nationally recognized spoken-word artist Paul Flores, said moments like the one involving the young man's commitment are what healing circles are intended to draw out.
"I'm looking for a moment of leadership from boys like him over the course of the two hours," Flores said in a recent interview. "He went from being squirrely and jokey to committed to connecting back and setting an example for his other family members."
On the surface, Placas is a play about Salvadoran gang life in the states. The word "placas" is barrio slang for a tattoo identifying an individual's membership and unswerving loyalty to the gang. The play grapples with the practice of tattoo removal as a possible path for former gang members to show violence prevention workers, police, probation offices, and judges that they've renounced their past.
The play premiered in San Francisco in 2012 and has been touring in California and across the nation on and off over the past three years. The circle I attended was part of a four-city tour sponsored by the California Endowment Center for Healthy Communities. The healing circles and other workshops are conducted before the play debuts in each city to address issues that are raised in the work. The Central American Resource Center, in partnership with the San Francisco International Arts Festival, commissioned Flores to write a play about tattoo removal in the wake of the 2008 slaying of Anthony Bologna and his two sons, Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16, in San Francisco's Excelsior district. Police ultimately arrested Edwin Ramos, an MS-13 gang member who reportedly believed the victims were members of a rival gang.
The mainstream media was "attacking every Central American youth as a drug-dealing gang member," Flores recalled. The resource center wanted a piece of theater that could speak to the beauty of Central and South American culture while also providing a humanistic portrayal of gang violence in its proper historical context.
With help from local journalist Josue Rojas and an incarcerated former gang member, Alex Sanchez, who acted as guides to the city's street life, Flores began interviewing gang members and intervention workers. He also conducted a workshop with a cohort of fifteen young men, most of them members of the Norteño gang who were on probation and had court mandates to have their tattoos removed. Flores, with help from the nonprofit, National Compadres Network, conducted healing circles as a way to build trust with the cohort, which often led to stories that Flores would then use as material for the play.
The men also helped Flores write parts of the script, ensuring that everything from scenes depicting the initiation of new gang members to depictions of the father and son relationship in the play were authentic.
Flores sees the programming tied to the play, which also includes a documentary theater workshop and peacekeeping panel, as a platform for healing within the community. At the same time, Placas is, at its heart, the story of an estranged father seeking a second chance to connect with his son. It's that relationship that universalizes the narrative, making it accessible even to audience members who don't share in the play's cultural context.
"Communities in crisis are made up of people just like us," Flores said. "[This play] is about building love for people who are fucking despised ... And, it's a form of community building that can then start the transformative work in the community to create sustainable change."
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