Judith Sloan Brings Yo Miss to the Stage -- Transforming Trauma Into Art

10/19/2011 03:09 pm ET | Updated Dec 19, 2011
  • Anthony Papa Manager of Media & Artist Relations, Drug Policy Alliance

Stories about economic and social inequities and vulnerable populations are recently making it to the mainstream press as is evident by the blossoming Occupy Wall Street protests not only in New York City but all over the country and the world.

One woman, Judith Sloan, has been making a difference in her community for the past 10 years to provide real tools for living and self-expression through a program she created for immigrant and refugee teenagers who come from conflict zones and war zones. Sloan is an actress, journalist, radio producer, and educator and is working to sustain the program and sustain her own sanity through the production of a play, Yo Miss! Teaching Inside the Cultural Divide. Part of the proceeds from the Yo Miss show go to the non-profit program of EarSay that brings professional artists to work with immigrant teenagers with little or no access to arts training. The performance which has been in development for three years will be produced at the historic Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Manhattan on November 3, 4, 5 and 6th.

I met Judith Sloan soon after I got out of prison in 1997. At the time she was performing and creating radio documentaries for public radio. Her solo show A Tattle Tale was based on the real story of a woman in Mississippi who blew the whistle on police brutality. This was not the first theatre/radio project that Sloan embarked on that was informed by real stories or oral histories. In the 1980s Sloan created a theatre project and oral history project based on stories of older European Jews and Holocaust survivors. She toured with the work throughout the United States and in Canada, Israel and Japan before moving to New York City in 1990.

After moving to New York she met and married Warren Lehrer, a visual artist, writer, and also someone who worked with oral history in to art. Together they wrote several plays, created radio documentaries, and founded their non-profit EarSay which has been going since 2000. Their most ambitious and widely-known project to date is Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America -- a multimedia project with photographs, stories, and audio pieces that includes a book, cd, website, traveling exhibition and performance. Crossing the BLVD intimately portrays the lives and stories of new immigrants and refugees who came to the US -- Crossing the BLVD won the Brendan Gill Prize, given by the Municipal Art Society to one art work per year that best captures the spirit of New York City.

Now with Yo Miss! Sloan has turned the microphone on herself, and is remixing her own story with the stories of her 20 years of reporting on and teaching incarcerated youth, as they grapple with the cataclysmic global events that shaped them.

The opening line of the description of Yo Miss! peeks curiosity -- What happens when a performing artist survives a near-fatal car accident and collides with the oncoming traffic of Hip Hop culture? I asked Sloan why that was an important part of her story.

When I almost died in a car accident in 2007, I started gathering all of these poetic pieces that I had written and decided that I had to write more of my own story before I died. I was also thinking, oh my god, if I had died what would have happened to my program and the kids and all these projects? At the same time, I was starting to work with hip hop artists in music and theatre. Hip Hop is not really my culture and my director Michael Dinwiddie, who is African-American and from Detroit was looking at the kinds of things I wanted to write about feeling imprisoned and about wanting to release these very hard stories about my own life and mix them with the stories of how the kids were impacting me and vice versa. He told me to start listening to an underground rapper, Immortal Technique.

Two years later I invited Immortal Technique, who is a very radical rapper to visit my program because I thought the kids from Peru, and Afghanistan, and Venezuela, and Tibet, and Colombia, and 10 other countries would appreciate that he raps about third world politics and economic inequities. Then in 2010 I produced a radio documentary about Immortal Technique for Public Radio International's THE WORLD about his efforts to help fund an orphanage in Afghanistan. At the same time I was working with a young man who is a hip hop fanatic and also theatre/radio producer, Michael Premo. Michael was also giving me a lot of music and I began talking to hip hop artists who were involved in social justice programs, which is a far cry from what the more commercial representation of Hip Hop is.

Frankly, I was suffering from a lot of hardships within two years, the recession combined with a real physical problem and I began talking to Jonathan Stuart the CEO of Viper Records, (Immortal Technique's independent label) about what I wanted to do with my work and how. Jonathan had spent a year in prison and I think that his understanding of what I was going through and of what it was taking for me to 'get out of it' was critical to my process. I needed to heal the story was helping me but the show had to be more than that. And I was remixing old material with new stories at a rapid pace inspired somewhat by working with Immortal Technique's music producer Touré Harris who explained that I could 'repurpose' the old scripts and material, a way of sampling myself, and remix in a play to take the audience on this journey.

Sloan's husband Warren Lehrer is an artist and writer and the two founded EarSay to create stories that are often ignored in the mass media. With all of this support, including the help of Viper Records she is producing Yo Miss! In its most recent incarnation, which includes live music mixed with a live sound engineer, Miwi LaLupa on bass, Adam Hill on viola and beat boxing and Luke Santy live sound engineer. And this show has a purpose -- to help bring attention to and help raise money for EarSay's arts and activism workshops in partnership with the International High School at LaGuardia Community College.

I saw a work-in-progress version of Yo Miss, and was impressed with Sloan's ability to seamlessly move from one character to the next, and to weave stories of kids, working in prisons, music and crashing into hip hop with her own story that reveals the ripple effects of war and the Holocaust on her family. Without giving away the secrets revealed in the show, I can simply say it's a journey of redemption in the face of a very hard life, and on that level, Sloan's work is related to the origins of Hip Hop rising out of the fires in the Bronx.

At a time where there is a burgeoning consciousness about immigration, vulnerable youth, alternatives to incarceration and the necessity to lead a purposeful life, Yo Miss! Is right on target. You can read about the work in progress of Yo Miss in the New York Times.

Details: November 3, 4, 5 and 6th at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. For more information visit the EarSay website.