Producing BrooKenya!

BrooKenya! is a community-based soap opera that began in 2003 when residents in Brooklyn, New York, USA and Kisumu, Kenya launched a collaborative homegrown soap opera inspired by their lives and imaginations. They wrote, acted and filmed 100 scenes that were seen by tens of thousands at live screenings and on the Internet. The interwoven plot ultimately stretched from North America to Africa to South America in Peru.

This experimental project brought together 150 people who volunteered their time and talent and donated their money and resources to produce not only a story, but a place. BrooKenya! is very American, very Kenyan and a bit Peruvian, yet it belongs to no territory. It has no familiar borders, perhaps no borders at all. Yet it is as tangible as any country yet invented.

Utilizing the global entertainment language of soap opera, BrooKenya! alters many of its usual conventions. Scenes feature a multi-racial cast of ordinary people. A collection of scenes replaces the traditional episodic format. Plot and character grow organically from participants’ own experiences rather than being imposed by the message-driven model of education-entertainment. Interwoven plots between the countries were developed, as well as local stories. With one out of three residents in Kisumu infected with HIV/AIDS and Brooklyn the epicenter of the epidemic in the U.S., the pandemic emerged as a prominent theme. Stories also developed on subjects such as racism, gender inequality, homophobia, sexual assault and teen pregnancy.

Locally, the project brought together diverse groupings of individuals who would not have met otherwise. Using readily available technologies, the need for costly touring and air travel was circumvented so that the international dialogue could include those whose voices are most often left out. Meeting locally, the teams stayed in touch by phone and Internet chats, sending scripts and videotapes between countries. BrooKenya’s direct cultural exchange yielded other forms of international relations—including cross-cultural friendships and financial support from American participants for grassroots development programs in Kenya.

Videotaped scenes were presented to international audiences at live events and on the Internet. Simultaneous participatory screenings in the United States, Kenya and Peru hosted 800 guests, who were connected via cell phone and web cam and who joined in the making of the project on the spot. www.brookenya streamed videos and logged 20,000 visits. Screenings and workshops were presented at diverse venues: the Brooklyn Public Library, International Center for Tolerance Education, Act Now Foundation, Brooklyn Arts Council, Erasmus Hall High School and Ripple Bar in Brooklyn, USA; Abila Cultural Center in Kisumu, Kenya; Arena y Esteras in Lima, Peru; International Community Theatre Festival in Rotterdam, Netherlands; and First Latin American Conference on Education-Entertainment for Social Change in Morelia, Mexico. A half hour television special aired on public access channels in New York City.

BrooKenya! was produced by the Community Theatre Internationale in collaboration with Integrated Community Health Services (InCHeS), a Kenyan NGO. Joining the project later in the process was Arena y Esteras, a community theatre in Villa El Salvador, a district in Lima, Peru founded by immigrants from the Andes Mountains. BrooKenya! was made possible through the generous support of individuals, as well as grants from the International Center for Tolerance Education and New York State Council on the Arts (through the Brooklyn Arts Council).

BrooKenya! as Cultural Transformation

BrooKenya! embodies the mission of lead producer Community Theatre Internationale—creating community through performance across borders local and global. The project explicitly promoted relationships across boundaries of social identity and experience—race, ethnicity, age, class, nationality, gender, sexual orientation and language. Itprovided a stage where people could gather to construct “performatory dialogues,” uncensored and unmediated by corporate media, government or commerce.

BrooKenya! fused community theatre, video arts, soap opera and international social development. Its marriage of grassroots creativity with popular entertainment produced engaging fictional narratives that authentically express the creativity and concerns of ordinary people in different parts of the world. Putting in their hands one of the primary tools of globalization—entertainment—BrooKenya! allowed people to take part in shaping that process. The making of entertainment was democratized and integrated into everyday life.

At the heart of BrooKenya! is an approach easily transferable to countless life situations. More than an aesthetic activity, performance is treated as the unique human capacity to transform ourselves and our world anew—the activity by which we make culture. All aspects of production become a performance—in front of the camera and behind it, on screen and off, on stage and in the audience. Discovering their ability to create and perform, participants and audiences are empowered to play new roles in life. Distinctions between art/utility, process/product, life/problems, actor/audience evaporate. This method yields engaging entertainment while revealing how human beings build community. With the energy, playing out of conflicts, excitement and laughter released in theatrical play, people transform the stuff of their lives (however painful, ugly or conflict-ridden) into opportunities for beauty, connection and transformation.

BrooKenya! is made possible with contributions by individuals and businesses. More information.