Recent graduates of Saint Peter’s University have banded together to form a new organization: the Theatre for Beloved Community.
The irony of starting a theater group when all live in-person performances are cancelled indefinitely is not lost on the organization’s founders — but they believe that the pandemic has made art, solidarity and community more important than ever.
The theater came together after Dominick Mastrodonato, a 2020 graduate who majored in sociology, presented his honors thesis this past spring. Mastrodonato’s thesis explored the intersection of performance and liberation, an experimental art form known as “revolutionary theater.”
“Revolutionary theater is a form of performance that seeks to rouse the masses wherever they are,” Mastrodonato said. “It’s a way to really let your audience know what’s going on, and a way to show them what's possible through the spectrum of performance.”
Historically, revolutionary theater has been used by activist groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which staged boycotts and sit-ins for racial justice in the 1960s. Social justice theater has also been utilized by ACT UP, the grassroots group that has been organizing to end the AIDs epidemic since the 1980s.
One of the attendees of Mastrodonato’s presentation was Michelle Pérez, a Saint Peter’s University alumna who graduated in 2016. Perez, who sings with Schola and serves on the university’s alumnae board, currently works for the New Jersey Department of State.
Afterwards, Pérez approached Mastrodonato and told him she thought they should make his vision a reality. Thus, the Theatre for Beloved Community was born.
Mastrodonato and Pérez intend for the theater to be a place where all are welcome to read poetry, recite a speech or simply listen. In the future, they plan to work with campus groups like Argus Eyes and Students for Peace and Justice.
The theater’s name was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who used the term “beloved community” to describe a fellowship of human beings built on redemption and radical love. Dr. King used the phrase in a 1968 Jersey City speech which took place only a few days before he was assassinated.
“To me, ‘Beloved Community’ is about not just creating community but sustaining community which is harder,” Perez said. “We want to sustain a community that shares in love, and is rooted in love.”
The theater’s first event was a Zoom reading of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech which touches on racism, militarism and imperialism.
In addition to King’s teachings, the theater is rooted in Jesuit spirituality which introduced Mastrodonato to the Ignatian ideal of “finding God in all things.” An essential aspect of this teaching is diversity.
“Jersey City is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, but the diversity is often praised only on the surface,” said Mastrodonato. “In our project, we really want to keep our word and make sure that we actually value people’s voices.”
The Theatre for Beloved Community aims to reach not only Saint Peter’s students but the Jersey City community as well. Mastrodonato is especially passionate about slowing down gentrification in the city, and he hopes to work with groups like Jersey City Together that fight for housing rights.
“Although we’re a theater organization, we’re not looking to produce theater just for the sake of entertainment,” Mastrodonato said. “Our cause is really more socially and politically driven.”
Mastrodonato cited political science professor Anna Brown, Ph.D. and former sociology professor Rivera Colon, Ph.D as two of his biggest inspirations when it comes to social justice work. One of Pérez’ role models is the Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa.
“Reading her works helped me realize that everything I thought was a hindrance — like being a first generation college student or the child of Colombian migrants who didn’t go to college — is actually an opportunity to be a bridge,” said Perez. “So that’s what I see the Theatre for Beloved Community as. We’re building a bridge, and we’re using theater as a way to talk about what peace and justice look like.”
The Theatre of Beloved Community is currently planning future events and will resume meeting next semester.