Op-ed | A theater uptown, at long last

The cast of Somos Mias, playing at the Peoples Theatre Project
Photo by Emmanuel Abreu for Peoples Theatre Project

New York City is considered one of the world’s most appealing destinations for theater and the arts, a destination for immigrants seeking a new life, and a place where artists of all types enjoy boundless opportunities to perfect and showcase their craft. 

But not every community enjoys equivalent access to the types of arts and culture that represents their heritage. For far too long, one of the city’s more diverse, immigrant neighborhoods—in Inwood and Washington Heights—has not had a performance space to call their own. A permanent venue that celebrates the immigrant experience, preserves the community’s rich history, and protects its cultural diversity.

The stage is now set to change that. After a lengthy search and vetting process, the New York City Economic Development Corporation and Department of Cultural Affairs just announced that our immigrant- and women-led nonprofit, People’s Theatre Project, has been selected to create, own, and operate the groundbreaking Immigrant Research and Performing Arts Center on West 206th Street in Inwood. 

This is a win for our community and for all New Yorkers, particularly our immigrant communities that seek equal representation on stage and in the arts. And they deserve a place that offers multilingual and multigenerational programming that provides a powerful artistic platform for immigrants and members of the Latinx, Black, and Queer communities.

I founded People’s Theatre Project fourteen years ago, with $400 saved up from waiting tables. I witnessed the need to uplift the voices of immigrants, young people and people-of-color in New York City. We live in a city that is powered by immigrant New Yorkers;  yet way too often, these same people who feed us, care for our children, take care of our elders, maintain our streets and homes, and start and run small businesses in our communities, remain unseen and unrecognized. Our stories are needed center stage. Theatre has the power to humanize our experiences, empowering us as immigrant New Yorkers and creating a more empathetic and compassionate home for all of us.

Since our founding, we have become Manhattan’s largest performing arts organization north of Harlem, where we make theater with and for immigrant communities to build a more just and equitable world. We have engaged more than 10,000 Latinx, Black, and immigrant youth of color, formed a professional ensemble of immigrant artists, launched a theater and social justice leadership program, and created an in-school theatre program that guides students through a journey of self-discovery and celebration of their cultures.

This new chapter in our history reflects the needs of the communities we serve. In addition to PTP’s core programs, the Center will be a place for weekly cultural programming for seniors in partnership with local senior centers; subsidized theater and studio space rentals for local performing artists; art exhibits by local and immigrant visual artists; and, a home to resident companies, partners, and individual artists.

Local audiences will be able to attend community events, film screenings, and live musical or dance performances. For children and families, the center will offer festivals, student matinees and field trips, and community partner programming.  And, the venue will serve as a place for the community to learn about and research immigrant history. The New York Public Library will partner with us to provide research and literary programming throughout each artistic season that will allow community members to explore the immigrant experience through scholarship and the performing arts.

Filled with a range of visual and performing arts, the Center will lift up the voices of the diverse immigrant communities that comprise New York City and cultivate work by local artists and arts organizations to present national and international work to the community. 

We thank the city for its financial investment, but more than that, for recognizing the need to connect with immigrant artists in our city.

Our work has only just begun. In the months ahead, we will work with our local and city officials and agencies, and, importantly, the vital community and civic groups, to ensure the center represents all voices, provides a welcoming space, and reaches people of all ages and communities. And, we will continue conversations with Dominican-centered institutions to have a presence in the space to enrich cultural learning and the immigrant history component, which is incredibly important to the Inwood community.

When we open our doors (in 2027), the center will connect, inspire, and activate generations of immigrants and their allies. This is an exciting moment for New York City, with an opportunity to build a community-rooted and anti-oppressive cultural institution from the ground up.

The neighborhood we call home will finally have an accessible, vibrant, dedicated rehearsal and performance space to call its own—a place that puts the immigrant experience on center stage. 

Mino Lora is the Founding Executive Director of the Peoples Theatre Project.