Nora Montañez stood in the center of Plymouth Congregational Church’s chapel, replaying a conversation she once had with her young daughter.
“Who is illegal?” Montañez asked, intoning a child’s voice. “Are you illegal?”
Returning to her adult persona, Montañez stared out at the audience in front of her. “The word illegal and immigrant should not be in the same sentence,” she said.
Montañez, founder of the Alliance of Latinx Minnesota Artists, is among the actors participating in a new theater program at the Stevens Square church. Called Theater 45°, the program gives members of marginalized groups a space to tell their own stories in ways they see fit.
Founders Seth Patterson and Ashawnti Ford said they hope the performances build understanding and drive people to action.
“Once we hear somebody’s story, it’s now part of us. We can’t pretend we didn’t hear it,” Patterson said. “That idea of witnessing is deeply important.”
Patterson, who has master’s degrees in theater performance and divinity, has worked for Plymouth Congregational Church since August 2016. He connected with Ford, an actress and a teaching artist, when he hired her for the church’s summer theater series.
Patterson and Ford created the framework for the program this past year and invited groups such as the Alliance of Latinx Minnesota Artists and Blackout Improv to participate.
Four theater groups have participated in the series so far, and two more are slated to perform in November. That includes Washburn High School’s Blackbox Theater program and zAmya Theater, a program for homeless individuals.
Patterson and Ford said their program is unique because it gives audiences a chance to interact with the performers through post-show discussions. Each performance also features some sort of opening and closing ritual.
At their performance, the Alliance of Latinx Minnesota Artists had audience members write “I am from” poems as an opening ritual. Montañez, a Peruvian-born actress who is married to Patterson, then performed her one-woman show, “Sabor a mi,” which is based on her family’s immigration story.
Speaking both Spanish and English, Montañez explained how her musician parents moved in the 1980s to New York from Peru, where they lived in a basement apartment with condensation dripping from the pipes.
She recalled her family’s struggles, such as the grueling hours her dad worked and her parents’ separation. “Why did we come here?” she asked.
The show featured Peruvian music, laughter and a rhetorical conversation between Montañez and the Statue of Liberty. The audience gave her a standing ovation after she finished.
In the post-show discussion, Norma Garcés, executive director of El Colegio High School in Southeast Minneapolis, said Montañez “represented us so dignified and so pure. That makes me proud.”
Attendee Yolanda Cotterall, who has been to three Theater 45° performances, said she was “touched” by the show and that she relates to Montañez’s immigrant story.
She said the program is a “beautiful intersection of faith and community.”
Jeanne Calvit is executive director and founder of Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, which provides people with disabilities a chance to perform and create visual art. Actors from her organization performed a cabaret during an Oct. 7 Theater 45° performance.
Calvit said the audience gave the actors a standing ovation and asked when they were performing again.
“People are always interested to hear these songs and stories of things they’ve never heard before,” she said.
Patterson said he hopes to continue the series and to continue to give marginalized groups chances to tell their stories.
Theater 45° will host its final two performances Nov. 4 and Nov. 18 at Plymouth Congregational Church. Visit theater45.com to learn more.