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Documental theater program at Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Center looks back on members’ lives

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The Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Center is located at 319 Stanhope St.
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An arts festival of life experiences is in the making in North Brooklyn.

After collecting countless memories from members, a new documental theater program at the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Center will culminate in an early summer theater festival putting lifetimes of experiences on display.

As part of the two-hour weekly program, called “Brooklyn Today/Brooklyn Hoy,” older adults meet to recount their life experiences, and share perspectives on what it’s like to live in Brooklyn as a senior today. The group — currently made up of 10 seniors — is guided by actor and artist-in-residence at CUNY Queens College, James Clements, who asks participants a series of questions that evolve into conversations in both English and Spanish.

The group’s testimonies will be shaped into short one-person theater projects for their families and friends to see.

Seniors are among the groups most affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and at the start of the outbreak, countless New York City elders were forced to remain isolated for several months, as COVID-19 posted a more significant threat to them than younger people.

Community organizations remain one of the best sources of help for older adults, according to the National Council on Aging, as they may help prevent depression and significantly reduce the risks of premature mortality.

“We sometimes don’t have anyone to talk to, but here we talk about everything,” said program participant Nancy Jacome. “We go back to our past and visit memories that let us leave here feeling happy.”

The program is designed to first look into areas of interest chosen by participants, and empower them to speak out on current issues in Brooklyn. 

“We worry about how we are going to pay rent and how everything is so expensive now, how there is violence in schools, and streets are not safe,” said group member Mercedes Ramos.  

Later stages of the project will help interviewees connect with members of their communities which they’ll then choose to interview themselves. The results will be turned into short theater pieces in the format they choose such as voiceovers, demonstrations or monologues.

“We often talk about our countries of origin, our childhoods,” said Irma Betancourt, the program’s English-to-Spanish translator. “We want more people to join because we know, here in Bushwick, we have so much in common.”

James Clements is a Scottish actor, writer and theatermaker based between New York and the UK. He practices verbatim interviews and documentary theater. Courtesy of James Clements

The program’s organizer, Clements, said the project was originally supposed to be community-centric, but within three sessions, he found the artistic value in the material shared by the seniors.

“They are keeping me on my toes as an artist, writer, and facilitator,” said Clements, who specializes in documentary theater. “I think something that I am guilty of — and our culture is guilty of — is treating older folks as if they’re invisible, or at the very least as if their learning and their growth is done. I don’t think it’s necessarily done maliciously, but it is far from that. They have very strong opinions and they have the experience to back it up.”

Though the group is well into the project, Clements said he’s hoping to include even more seniors’ stories.

To join the program — which takes place each Tuesday from 10 am to noon — older adults are invited to visit the Stanhope Street senior center, which also provides a warm meal and transportation for just $1.

“Here, I feel less stressed than at home,” said Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Center member Luis Arriaga. “I feel like my mind opens up and I think about stuff other than my everyday problems.”

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