By Ana María Arellano
Rafael Ramos founded Bregamos Theater in New Haven 13 years ago and gave it an unusual name for an intentional and precise reason. “In Latin America, ‘bregamos’ means ‘We fix it, tweak it, to make it work, to make it happen, by any means necessary, to make a deal, consider it done,” says Ramos.
It’s also apparent, Ramos, 56, who started out as a plumber, gave the same kind of profound thought to the role the arts can play in transforming and advancing communities, which is what led him to run a theater in the first place.
As this father of seven tells his story, many of the pieces fall into place.
“I grew up in the South Bronx in a Puerto Rican family, he says. “The South Bronx was teeming with artists who were taking over “squats”—buildings abandoned by the city. As a plumber, I helped the artists, and I was always exposed to the arts.”
He later studied public health at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. It was there that a novel perspective was presented to him. The discussions with faculty challenged students to make a community healthier through unconventional approaches.
“The idea was to become an agent of change,” says Ramos. “You would learn the cause of a problem, then find a way to change the outcome.” This didn’t require a student to choose a traditional public health career.
So Ramos founded Bregamos. Shortly thereafter, he assembled his first drama, “Ay Mama!”
“It made you laugh, but, by the end of the play you knew the ABCs of preventing cervical cancer,” says Ramos.
Bregamos did not yet have a stage of its own, so “Ay Mama!” took place at “The Bar,” a nightclub and pizzeria on Crown Street in New Haven. The theater finally acquired a home in 2008 inside an abandoned warehouse located at Erector Square in New Haven.
Through Bregamos, Ramos has wanted to change more than just health.
“The Latino voice was missing in New Haven Theater,” he says. Although voices other than Latino have been heard at Bregamos, the majority of performances at Bregamos have been about being Latino: the variety of cultures, dealing with crime, conflict in Latin America, comedy and even “Spanglish.” Last season’s “El Monte Calvo,” (The Bald Mountain) directed and performed by three Yale professors, illustrated the trauma faced by two Latinos who fought in the Korean Civil War. “They deal with the PTSD that any veteran can have,” Ramos says.
Since it is a community theater, Bregamos’ performances have been local. In 2008, however, the theater company was given the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands.
“We were given a stipend to attend the International Community Arts Festival in Rotterdam, where we presented ‘Kingdom,’ a hip-hop musical about the Latin Kings,” says Ramos.
Dutch theater reviewer Jan-Willem van den Heuvel wrote, ” ‘Kingdom,’ without a doubt, (is) the most spectacular performance of the Community Arts Festival in Rotterdam. It is a rough diamond of a rap musical.’”
But what Ramos constantly talks about is this past season’s newest venture. Together with artistic director Sharece Sellem, Ramos started the Warehouse Ensemble, New Haven’s only running teen theater program. WE premiered “Hope High Class of ’84,” written and directed by Sellem. Ramos said he found “Hope High” especially gratifying since it gave him a foretaste of the inter-generational element he would like to see at Bregamos.
“At auditions, we had a grandmother who brought her granddaughter to try out for a part. Soon, the grandmother was auditioning, too. And then the young girl’s mother and father auditioned. All four had parts in the musical.”
However exciting the performance is, Ramos, understands the responsibility it takes to really be an agent of change.
“Only 10 percent of jobs out there in theater are onstage. The rest are backstage and technical. WE is set up so that all ensemble members learn these jobs, too,” he says.