In the spring of 2000, a sold-out crowd of volunteers and union organizers, parents and students, hourly wage earners and salaried policy wonks, mohawks and buzz cuts, Latino and black, white and Asian, Christian and Jew packed a small auditorium in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood for the first official show of Washington, D.C.-based arts organization Sol & Soul. The show, titled ¡Ya!, began with the backstage sounds of shaking spray paint cans and drumming. Suddenly, a half dozen breakdancers took center stage as graffiti artists decorated the sets and musicians drummed in the background.
Within the first two minutes the audience members were on their feet, responding to the unexpected collaboration of visual art, sound, and movement. Or to seeing "street art" on the stage. Or to the adrenaline rush from the first appearance of Spoken Resistance, the youth and young adult performance group of Sol & Soul.
Sol & Soul has kept its fans and audience members on their toes—both through the challenge of its social justice mission and the fact that most shows are standing room only—for the past three years. The programs sponsored by Sol & Soul (usually pronounced and sometimes written with the "and" in Spanish: Sol y Soul) include Spoken Resistance; the solo work of the organization's artistic director, Quique Aviles; artistic residencies and performances by visiting artists; free creativity and art workshops for the community; and El Barrio Street Theater, Washington, D.C.'s only street theater project.
Aviles co-founded Sol & Soul with Hilary Binder-Aviles and Yael Flusberg in 1999, giving a name to the grassroots activism and high quality artistic performances the three had been organizing and supporting in the D.C. area for years. They named the organization to reflect its philosophy: "Just as plants convert sunlight to food, so do we use the raw elements of ‘sol' (Spanish for sun) and ‘soul' to create art in the service of building a more just society," they write on the Sol & Soul Web site.
Flusberg, now a co-chair of the board of directors, says the organization strives to "bring artistry into everyday acts of resistance." In the next five years, Flusberg says the group will continue to establish itself as "a laboratory for creative experimentation and creative activism, producing artistic works with conscience. We want to build a supportive infrastructure for art and activism in D.C. and have artists work through us to get their [work] out there."
Key aspects to creating this laboratory are the artistic process used by Sol & Soul artists and collaborators and the dialogue with the audience that occurs as part of every Sol & Soul performance. The core of both is critical thinking. Ruth Young, 18, a member of Spoken Resistance since she was 15, says, "Most programs geared toward young people don't encourage critical thinking and critical social thinking. We encourage people to be more political." Quique Aviles leads the Spoken Resistance workshops with a structure that allows the artists to write on any subject without restriction as long as they are willing to submit the work to group critique. Aviles says, "[The process] created another model. You have to be open to being an activist and need to see the themes to be addressed."
Audiences attending performances face similar expectations. Sol & Soul welcomes confrontation. After each show, the audience has a chance to react, respond, and question the performers about their work. Lisa Alvarado, a poet and artist, performed her one-woman show "The Housekeeper's Diary" as part of Sol & Soul's 2000 season. She says the goal of audience dialogue is to "push the envelope and re-create ritual" and to keep the audience from being passive. "It's not a finished product for a consumer culture."
Aviles says, "If we haven't offended anybody we haven't done our jobs. We don't keep people comfortable, we rock the boat."
Beth Newberry lives and writes in central Kentucky. For more information about The Housekeeper's Diary, e-mail Lisa Alvarado at firstname.lastname@example.org.