José Torres-Tama is many things — poet, performer, artist — but above all, he’s an activist, fighting the social and political injustices that threaten the well-being of Latino immigrants and other people of color in America.
The New Orleans-based artist’s latest work, “Taco Truck Theater/Teatro Sin Fronteras Project,” gets a local debut with two shows this weekend, starting at the Art Garage on Saturday, then motoring over to the Ashé Cultural Arts Center on Sunday.
“No human being is illegal, and black lives matter,” Torres-Tama said emphatically. “As a performance artist, I’m a provocateur, and I’m looking to deal — in a very poetic manner — with the anti-immigrant sentiment. We have a diverse ensemble of black, brown and white artists exploring this issue, and that brings a whole lot of different, powerful personal perspectives to the subject.”
The inspiration for “Taco Truck Theater” comes from the work of Luis Valdez and his 1960s troupe El Teatro Campesino, known for performing empowering acts of political activist theater on the back of flatbed trucks for migrant farm workers in California during the United Farm Workers movement.
Torres-Tama is taking a similar mobile approach, having outfitted a 2003 GMC box truck to haul a quick-assemble stage (built by Southern Rep technical director Alex Smith) from location to location.
The 16-foot stage supports Torres-Tama and his ArteFuturo Ensemble, a band of musicians, singers, poets and performers who share collective authorship of the work.
The show is rooted in what Torres-Tama calls “performance ritual,” a blend of stories, songs and performance pieces that weave together comedy and tragedy in an encapsulation of the immigrant experience.
There are characters, like Torres-Tama’s take on El Pachuco, a classic Chicano character type, and there are real-life dramatic stories gleaned from interviews with immigrant day laborers who surreptitiously crossed the border from Mexico.
There’s a piece that invokes the names of immigrants and African-Americans killed in police shootings, and the performers urge audience members to shout out additional names from their own lives and communities.
And, of course, there’s food. Pop-up vendors Tacos by Heidi and For Wholeness Sake will offer tacos and vegan soul food to further embody the communal experience.
“It’s a frightening time in this country, and I think artists have a responsibility,” Torres-Tama said.
“Right now, the deportations are very real. I’m looking for audiences to understand that people may not have papers, but this dehumanization is really quite despicable. And it’s the same kind of dehumanization that makes African-Americans less than human for policemen who will shoot them down.”
“Taco Truck Theater” was co-commissioned by Living Arts of Tulsa, where it debuted earlier this year, and Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, where the show will travel in 2018. It also was funded in part by grants from the National Performance Network.
This national show of support, Torres-Tama said, is proof of the timeliness and wide-ranging appeal of the work, though he also believes there is a strong local connection, as well. Torres-Tama, who started performing on the streets of the French Quarter in the '80s, is quick to acknowledge the history of the region’s indigenous people and the thousands of immigrant workers who came to New Orleans to help rebuild after the floods following Hurricane Katrina and whose experiences helped inspire “Taco Truck Theater.”
“We have a performance that will engage you visually, that will make you laugh, that will move your heart, and possibly — possibly — change your perspective on this idea of dehumanization of a particular people,” Torres-Tama said. “I’m trying to put a human heart and a human face on the immigrant because we are more alike than we are different.”
“Taco Truck Theater/Teatro Sin Fronteras Project”
WHEN: Sept. 9-10
WHERE: Art Garage, 2231 Saint Claude Ave.; Ashé Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
INFO: (504) 232-2968 or www.torrestama.com