Staging Public Kinship: Melissa Strova-Valencia and Teatro La Bolsa
If all the world’s a stage, then Meli Strova-Valencia knows how to shape the stage into the world we all must share.
Meli, who is originally from Cali, Colombia, is an educator, activist, and co-founder of Teatro La Bolsa, a bilingual Latin American theater company based in Washington, DC. She has an extensive background in theater and early childhood education, which she uses to curate programs and content for Teatro La Bolsa through her teachings of music, drama, and dance.
Her passion for theater and the arts began in Cali, where she taught at Musitodo, her family’s music academy. Her interest in acting grew: between high school and college she spent a year at Teatro Experimental de Cali (Experimental Theater of Cali), a drama school focusing on political/street theater as ways to address socio-political issues like war, community, and indigenous culture.
Meli’s theater studies at Universidad del Valle led her to Universidad de San Buenaventura, where she followed her passion for another subject: education. While she had previous experience teaching, it was through her own experience as a student that she truly understood the importance of early childhood education. “I had some revelations about how society works, and I realized that the education field is one of the most important areas to work with people.”
Meli has since worked at various nonprofits, pre-schools, and art schools in Colombia and DC. She has a meaningful perspective on education, emphasizing the benefits gained by placing teachers and students on an equal footing: “I feel like children have been my teachers....I teach them, they teach me, they learn from me and I learn from them.” (NAC has witnessed this very commitment first-hand through Teatro La Bolsa’s involvement with our Families are Artists, Creators, and Teachers Program [FACT], whose DC classes they lead!)
In addition to all she has learned from her students, immigrating to the US has also given Meli an opportunity for introspection and for recognition of her own and others’ privilege: “What am I using my art for, who am I reaching with my art...and why am I doing what I’m doing here?”
Despite differences she notices in communities in Colombia and the United States, she finds that people in both places are likely to be united by their struggles under a common oppressor. Meli refers to global issues such as white supremacy and colonialism as shared struggles of communities, and these communities can relate to one another by battling these problems together.
Teatro La Bolsa's bilingual, dynamic, comprehensive performances about a wide range of issues educate viewers and participants about women’s rights, racial equity, indigenous history, and much more. The company also holds audience forums after performance to discuss how these issues impact their own communities, as a space for community members to engage with each other, celebrate multiculturalism and multilingualism, and find common ground. To Meli, this process exemplifies drama’s effectiveness as a “therapeutic tool.”
She sees these discussions as essential to promote social change, especially where neighbors and communities can come together around common identities and experiences. To her, it is vital for leadership in these communities to be diverse, sensible, transparent, authentic, empathetic, and, above all, connected to the people it serves.
Meli's leadership in Teatro La Bolsa, alongside that of Sandra Tapia, Max Wickham, Alejandro Colina, and co-founder Karen Morales-Chacana, exemplifies the holistic community involvement that is necessary for building strong and equitable communities. The theater is a place of learning and healing -- a stage on which to share history, values, and stories. It is firm ground for the literal enactment of Public Kinship.
“What am I using my art for, who am I reaching with my art...and why am I doing what I’m doing here?”
Keep up with Teatro La Bolsa on Facebook as they develop new projects and promote and host cultural events in the DC area! They are now at work on a new play, "Dream of Azul: Remember Me," which will deal with femicide and domestic violence in Spanish, Portuguese, and English; and on "Freedom Deportation," which addresses black women workers’ rights and the legacy of Claudia Jones.
Interview by Emma Sullivan, NAC