To reach hard-to-count communities, a play about the census during tax-prep season

Lisa Jo Epstein (center left), Artistic and Executive Director of Just Act, leads rehearsal for the play

Lisa Jo Epstein (center left), Artistic and Executive Director of Just Act, leads rehearsal for the play "Count Me In," a forum theater project meant to encourage participation in the 2020 census among immigrant communities. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

In an unmarked community space in the Norris Square building of the nonprofit Ceiba,  several stars were born one recent weekend.

While people waited in a nearby hallway for income tax assistance, some nonprofessional actors prepared a newly written play they’ll next perform at Ceiba on Saturday, March 14, for another group seeking tax help.

The plot of the play, a forum theatre piece, is not explicitly about taxes. Its ultimate goal is to dispel myths about the census.

As Philadelphia ramps up awareness campaigns ahead of March 12 — when households begin receiving postcards with information about responding to the 2020 census online, over the phone, or via mail — Ceiba and theater nonprofit Just Act are collaborating on “Count Me In.” It’s the story of a Census Champion’s struggle to explain the importance of the census to hard-to-count communities.

The play focuses particularly on the Latino community. According to a 2012 U.S. Census Bureau report, 1.5% of the U.S. Hispanic population was undercounted in the last census. According to the bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey, in census tracts covering several North Philadelphia neighborhoods including Kensington, Fairhill and Harrowgate, roughly 60% of the population is Hispanic.

(As defined on the census form, Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin refers not to race,  but to “the heritage, nationality, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before arriving in the United States.”)

Signs posted around the offices of Ceiba in Norris Square, Kensington encourage visitors to participate in the 2020 census. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

The play opens during a weekend gathering at Abuelo’s house. There are three characters: Moms, J.V. (or “Just Visiting”), and Champ. They’re making small talk when Champ decides to tell Moms and J.V. about her new job working for the census.

The name “Champ” comes from Census Champions, a program of the city census office, Philly Counts, for training as many people as possible to be trusted messengers about the once-a-decade tally.

“Have you heard of it, El Censo?” asked Andria Bibiloni, a law student at Temple University and volunteer with Ceiba, as she performed the role of Champ.

“Isn’t it connected with immigration?” asked Karolina Cernakova, a program coordinator at Ceiba performing as Moms.

Andria Bibiloni (right) plays the role of “Census Champion” during rehearsal for the play “Count Me In” in Kensington. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

The response is directly related to some of the fears undocumented people experience when they hear the word “census.” That’s because the Trump administration tried to add a question that would have asked, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” The question was permanently blocked through federal courts, but it has caused confusion in many affected communities. The White House is still gathering existing records to produce citizenship data about everyone in the country.

As the play’s story unfolds, Moms and J.V. continue to counter and push back on everything Champ is saying about why the census is important — from school lunches, to streets and roads, to representation in Congress.

“Why should I do it? I don’t get it. It sounds like they’re going to take away my benefits,” Moms says.

“That’s what they want you to think. It’s scare tactics, but actually filling out the census helps bring money to the community. Come on, this is the U.S. — it’s the land of opportunity,” Champ pleads.

“No real opportunity for us.”

“Maybe your land, but not ours.”

The play “Count Me In” uses forum theater methodology to engage community members in thinking about and participating in the upcoming 2020 census. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

Putting the audience in the actors’ roles

Lisa Jo Epstein, executive director of Just Act, said the hope is that audience members, whom she called “spect-actors,” can relate to the moments of conflict and can feel comfortable to jump in and take the place of J.V. or Moms.

“There will be some direct teaching about the census in terms of the myths and the realities,” Epstein said. “But it will start with the forum theatre piece, so that the …  constituents who are in the room are recognizing … they know the situation, this is what they just came from. Right? And then to break it down into the real information about the census.”

The play “Count Me In” aims to dispell myths about the 2020 census and encourage community participation. (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

A big part of forum theatre is having the actors inform their performances with their own experiences. Marcos Lomelí, a program coordinator at Ceiba playing J.V., said he sees the character he plays in many of the people who come in for help with social services.

In the free tax prep program, one form filled out beforehand includes an option indicating the participant might need help filling out the census.

“So I say to them, ‘Oh, you indicated you need help with the census. What’s up?’” Lomelí said. “Well, it’s usually, some of the questions you heard today, ‘Do I have to do it?’ Why do I have to do it?’”

Language barriers also inform the actors’ process. The cast plans to perform in English, Spanish and Spanglish, moving among them as it fits naturally. Lomelí said trying to perform the play in Spanglish reminded him of trying to explain taxes to people whose first language isn’t English.

“Tax stuff in English already sounds like a bunch of jargon, and when you do it in Spanish, it’s even more jargon-y,”  Lomelí said. “Having that conversation that I’m sometimes trying to have with people around tax stuff, and they’re like, ‘Whatever, man, this is just a bunch of hullabaloo,’ that’s real. That feels like a real part of a conversation that I’ve had. There’s certain feelings and expressions and thoughts that you can only convey in one language.”

Just Act was one of dozens of nonprofits and community organizations in the city to receive microgrants for census outreach through Philly Counts’ 2020 Census Action Fund. Prior to applying for the grant, Epstein said, she was in conversation with Ceiba’s executive director, Will Gonzalez, about a theater piece to spark dialogue with the Norris Square Latino community and the census.

This is Just Act’s first project with Ceiba, Epstein said, but they are hoping to create more in the future, focused on subjects such as gentrification and voting.

Micaela Robalino uses a large notepad to write keywords to help the cast during rehearsal of the forum theater play “Count Me In.” (Becca Haydu for WHYY)

An opportunity to share stories productively

Epstein said one of the most impactful parts of forum theatre — a form created by Brazilian Augusto Boal — is that it creates an opportunity for community members who are oppressed to share their stories productively.

“In the Latinx community, there are a tremendous number of myths that have been spawned by our government that a lot of people believe are real because it’s everywhere,” Epstein said. “These myths become a kind of reality. And so they are using forum theatre as their vehicle to catalyze conversation with their community about real struggles that they have around the particular issue and strategize real ways to flip the script of what everyone has come to take as true.”

Ceiba’s Will Gonzalez said he sees a strong connection to performing to a captive audience during tax prep season, given that the census decides the ways in which tax dollars are spent.

“It’s funny that we are trying to use techniques that are from previous centuries, that are more interactive, that are not technology-driven, that are human beings, so I think it worked for the Greeks, it worked at various times in history to convey important information, and why not in the 21st century, when people are so disconnected?” Gonzalez said.

“Even though we can move information at the speed of light, it’s sometimes good to try and do it in a way that’s more personal, more interactive, that makes people think.”

WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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