BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — A Brooklyn-based all-female performance company that has been making waves around the world has a new executive director.
Chiwoniso Kaitano has taken the top position at Girl Be Heard, the nonprofit praised by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and called “fearless, political theater” by Huffington Post.
The organization develops the talents and self-esteem of disadvantaged girls, transgender youth and young women. The participants create and perform original theatrical pieces, poetry, rap, dance and other performance art based on their own experiences.
The resulting pieces are presented in their schools and at fundraisers — and on the steps of City Hall, at the White House, United Nations and TED conferences. The experience is free for the participants.
In addition to school-based performances, auditions are being held now through Oct. 4 for young women and transgender youth ages 12-21 who want to try out for Girl Be Heard’s free, year-long feminism theater collective.
The experience can be transformative for the young women, Kaitano told this paper in an interview.
“We deal with issues that are sometimes quite sensitive,” she said. “We have a show around the trafficking of young women; we talk about self-harm and body image. We talk a lot about the work around racism and dismantling racism. You know, most of our participants are women of color. So this is a very important topic.”
Kaitano said the girls also talk about intersectional feminism. “And these are areas where, if you are in the age range of the young women that we work with, you’re just really beginning to form your thoughts around what you think about these specific issues.
“We’re not there to plant thoughts in our young participants’ heads,” she added. “We believe you have a voice, and we’re just here to give you the tools and exercises to give yourself the fullest expression of yourself.”
Kaitano comes to Girl Be Heard from the nonprofit Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy. She holds a law degree from the London School of Economics and a master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University. Originally from Zimbabwe, she now lives in Brooklyn with her family.
“Even though the concept of Girl Be Heard germinated in 2008 … we didn’t become incorporated until much later. And that’s mostly due to the incredible energy and stamina and passion of founder Jessica Greer Morris and her co-founder, Ashley Marinaccio,” Kitano said.
While now based in DUMBO, the theater group has a strong connection to Brooklyn Heights. Back when the ensemble was called Project Girl Collective, Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights opened its doors and gave a home and rehearsal space to the troupe. In 2011, Girl Be Heard performed at a program on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Today, Girl Be Heard offers interactive workshops and after-school programming across New York City schools.
“These are small cohorts of young people who work with our teaching artists, coming up with devised theater. So they are exploring issues that are important to them and important to young women, and seeing how these issues can be unpacked and analyzed and turned into a work of art that is ultimately performed,” Kaitano said.
The performances are a chance “for the work that our young participants are doing week over week to reach the widest possible audience,” she said. About 20 teaching artists work with the roughly 220 girls and youth participating in any one year.
Many participants become more outgoing as a result of the program, but that isn’t the ultimate goal, Kaitano said.
“There’s no pressure to be outgoing in our program. We meet you where you are and you come as you are. And there’s no real expectation that you come in as an introvert and suddenly you’re going to be this great extrovert. We really want you to be the best version of yourself,” she said.
The goal is ultimately about impact in the community, she said. Many of the girls get into “amazing colleges,” and some have become social workers and educators, she said.
Kaitano says she plans to increase the work the organization is doing with school partners, participating with “far more schools and community based organizations.”
She’s also excited about the group’s five or 10-year strategic plan to expand the programs globally. The group already has a program up and running in Trinidad and Tobago, and is considering Zimbabwe, South Africa, Jamaica or the Dominican Republic.
“All the work we do, all the decisions we make, all of it is built upon this idea of putting the girls and young women who are in our program at the core of all of our decision making,” Kaitano said. “Because ultimately they’re the reason why we’re here.”