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Arts & Life

Many Languages, Stories Make Connections Beyond The Stage For El Teatro Theater Troupe

Stacy Nick
Students from Greeley's El Teatro program pose for a yearbook photo before rehearsal.

Theater is often meant to inspire as well as to entertain. For some high school students in Greeley, a theater program is giving them a voice even when they speak many different languages.

"El Teatro is a multilingual, multicultural theater group with the goal of helping students to share their story and teaching the community that we're all more alike than we are different," explained Jessica Cooney.

The Greeley West teacher helped start El Teatro nine years ago after realizing that her English as a Second Language students had some amazing stories - but no way to tell them.

"We see students who've come from war, students who've come here to the United States and faced great difficulty just coming here, students who have lost a parent," Cooney said.

El Teatro's 2015 production, Shaped By Our Experiences, featured dozens of stories in 15 languages, across 18 cultures.

Stories like 17-year-old Aden Tsige's.

Growing up in the tiny village of Adi Meskel in Eritrea, Tsige spent much of her childhood believing her father – a soldier in the Eritrean army – had been killed. At age 12, Tsige learned her father was in Ethiopia. Her family tried to follow him there.

"The Eritrean soldiers caught and jailed us for three months," she relays on the stage as part of her monologue. "Because my dad was an Eritrean soldier, we were not killed. We witnessed Eritrean soldiers killing other people. It was frightening."

Tsige said she chose to tell that story because she wanted her fellow students to appreciate the opportunities and freedoms that they have.

"How it's different, like, about American freedom and how I was without freedom – maybe they will understand then," she said.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Greeley West High School teacher Jessica Cooney leads her English as a Second Language class.

Bringing about change with their stories is important, said El Teatro member Kaleab Misgna, 16. The Greeley Central High School junior also is originally from Eritrea. In his El Teatro monologue, he talks about the importance of education.

"If I could change anything in this world, it would be to have schools all over the world," Misgna said. "There are many people in the world who don't have the opportunity to have an education. My mom is one of them."

Both of Misgna's parents work at the meat processing plant, JBS. But finding work for his mother, who can't read or write, was difficult.

He hopes to inspire other students with his story, but finding his own voice might be one of the most positive benefits of the program, teacher Jessica Cooney said.

"I see our students grow so much in their self-confidence and in their ability to speak in English," she said. "But then also we see a lot of times that the students start to take more pride in their native language and their culture as well."

Originally from Somalia, 15-year-old Sahro Warsame has lived in the United States for most of her life, but she is still very connected to her culture. That includes wearing a traditional hijab to cover her hair.

Once, Warsame recalled, a fellow student asked her about it, saying "Is your hair bad? It's OK. We could help you with it. Why do you cover it?"

"I told her, oh no, it's my religion," the Greeley West High School sophomore said. "It's like, a part of me. Even if I had a choice to take it off, I wouldn't. Cause it's like a part of me now."

Sharing her story helped her find her place in her school community.

"After we performed at West (in 2014), my friends came up to me and they were like 'Wow, we didn't know that about you,'" she said. In that show, Warsame spoke about losing her father in the war and how her family was separated on the way to the United States.

Hearing stories similar to hers is inspiring, said 15-year-old Thaw Meh, whose family came from Thailand in search of better educational opportunities. Meh still remembers the first time she saw El Teatro.

"When I'm in middle school, the El Teatro group came to our school and then they have a show, like we did, and then, I really liked it so, it make me want to join," she said.

Now, she's the one who inspires.

"All my friends are very quiet so I'm like a role model for them to go up onstage and talk in front of everybody."

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