Courtesy of Pregones/PRTT. The cast of Abrazo at Pregones.

Pregones’ latest production aims to tackle mental health

With anxiety, depression and other mental health problems plaguing many Bronx residents in the wake of the pandemic, Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater’s latest production seeks to raise awareness and discussion about mental health in the Bronx.

Abrazo, or Embrace, a series of four micro plays written by Puerto Rican playwright Alejandra Ramos Riera premiered Friday.  The plays deal with various hardships, including suicide and finding human connection.

Several matinees and an evening performance were held at the theater’s Bronx venue and more performances are scheduled through Sept. 14.  Admission is free to the public.

A key aim of the micro plays is to form an intimate connection with the audience. This is done by capping audience sizes at 40 people and asking audience members after the performance how they are coping with mental health.  This will give the theater a sense of how to improve community wellness within the Bronx, explained Jorge Merced, the associate artistic director for Pregones/PRTT.

“As artists we are inspired by life and society and things that we are connected with,” he said.

The audience for Friday’s matinee performances – unlike evening performances, which are targeted for a general audience – were members of various community organizations dealing with mental health in the Bronx. Merced said the theater wanted to hear from these groups, as well as the general audience, about their concerns regarding mental health.

“It’s been really great to connect with the audiences this way,” Merced said. “So far, the conversations have been really amazing.”

The input from the community will allow the theater’s artists to “be inspired by (their) comments” in order to make a new production that will premier next year by the spring or summer. That production will allow audience members to take on an interactive role in the play by identifying and addressing various social problems in their communities — an experience known as forum theater, Merced said.

Before that play premieres, however, Merced said that Pregones/PRTT will seek further input from the community’s residents and organizations to engage in a series of conversations and workshops around the community to see what issues it is most concerned about.

In short, the theater is on listening mode, which Merced likened to “a beautiful, green fertile ground for artists” that allows them to learn and celebrate “the collective wisdom that only a place like the Bronx can provide us.”

The theater’s current focus on mental health is not the first time Pregones/PRTT has reached out directly to the community to address social problems affecting local residents.

The theater group launched AIDS prevention education programs in the 1980s and ‘90s and has tackled domestic violence with a cadre of short plays. Many performances took place in community institutions, like church basements and hospital lobbies.

“Now with mental health, this is what we really need to devote our creativity to right now to understand how our community in the Bronx is aligning itself in the aftermath of the isolation that the pandemic brought,” he said.

Merced added that “theater has that generous universe in which you surrender your reality for a little bit.”

Abrazo/Embrace will run through Sept. 14 at the Pregones/PRTT’s Bronx theater, 571 Walton Ave. For a list of showings and to make a reservation, visit www.pregonesprtt.org

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