In 1975, a young Chicano activist moved to Sacramento and started a theater company. His name was Manuel Jose Pickett and he called the group the Teatro Espejo, which translates to “Theater of the Mirrors.”
They rehearsed wherever space was available — mostly in living rooms, public parks. And they took their performances directly to the streets of Sacramento.
“You can create a theater out of anything,” Pickett says.
From a humble beginning 44 years ago, Teatro Espejo has earned its niche in Sacramento’s theater world.
Humility is in the group’s DNA. After all, Pickett’s previous venue was a portable stage stored in the shell of a 1968 Dodge cargo van, with a small troupe of activist farmer-actors called Teatro Campesino, or “Farmworkers’ Theater.”
Manuel Jose Pickett grew up in a poor neighborhood in the west side of Fresno.
“We were farm workers. There was no opportunity to go to college. The high schools discouraged us from any occupation except labor. They said, ‘Don’t worry about college, you should be a mechanic. Do something with your hands — your people are good at that.’”
By the age of 17, Pickett was committed to a life of social activism.
“I had dealt with discrimination and racism my entire life, and I began to express myself through the Chicano movement. It connected me to something I felt was very important,” Pickett said.
However, his introduction to theater was largely accidental. Pickett was a musician. He played the trumpet, trombone and guitar, and he’d always planned to express his activism through music.
He was recruited to the Teatro Campesino as the troupe’s musical director. That didn’t last long.
“One of the main actors got laryngitis,” he said. “There was no one else to play the part, and they’re all looking at me. I’m thinking, ‘Not in a million years.’ But then there I am, memorizing lines overnight, trying to figure out how to become a character. But I performed. I did a horrible job, but we got the job done.”
More importantly, Pickett learned that theater could be a powerful tool for social justice.
Pickett had already committed to a life of social activism and now he was falling in love with the theater. It was a perfect marriage.
And so Teatro Espejo was born. Pickett chose the name because “our work reflects the issues that affect the community. What people see on the stage is basically their lives.”
By the time Pickett had started up the Teatro Espejo, “Mainstream theater had pretty much alienated most people of color. Discrimination was rampant.”
Teatro Espejo focused on issues impacting the Sacramento community.
“There were incidents at the K Street mall, for example,” Pickett said. “Latino youths were being singled out. We created skits around the issue and performed them in the streets, in the malls. It had a big impact.”
Teatro Espejo found a venue in 1980, when Pickett joined the faculty at Sacramento State. The theater organization was integrated into Sac State’s theater program, where it remained until Pickett’s retirement in 2012.
The mission of the theater company also expanded to include the larger Latin American community.
“We’ve always been inclusive,” Pickett said. “It was important to identify with those Latinos who weren’t necessarily Mexican-Americans.”
Teatro Espejo is committed to cultural acceptance. Pickett describes the concept as “Universal Truth.”
“America is made up of many different cultures and languages,” Pickett said. “We should be able to live with each other and have respect for each other’s contributions. It’s that reality that makes the United States so unique — and possibly wonderful.
“As a theater company, sometimes we have to address issues things that aren’t exactly popular. Women’s rights, for example, or acceptance of homosexuality.”
“When I was younger, I wanted to sensitize people to this reality. But it was difficult — I didn’t want the community to be turned off by my work. But then I felt like a hypocrite — here I am, trying to sensitize the community to human conditions — to realities that are important to our people, and then I don’t do plays on these issues that affect people I know?
“I’m sure some people still have problems with it. But what if you find out your son is gay? And then if you see it on stage, you have to ask yourself: Am I the antagonist in this play I’m watching?”
Teatro Espejo’s season includes two major productions a year, in the spring and fall.
The One Act Festival takes place each summer. The annual festival is a training workshop for new performers and directors.
Each winter the theater company offers a Children’s Showcase. It’s a weekend program for child performers.
Teatro Espejo doesn’t have a specific venue, but the theater company usually performs at the R25 Arts Complex in Sacramento, which includes the California Stage, Wilkerson Theater and Three Penny Theater.
Though he’s retired from Sac State, Pickett is focused on the sustainability of the theater. He’s been training others and passing off some of the responsibilities of the organization. In 2018, Teatro Espejo attained status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
“Our group has been around for 44 years,” says Pickett, “and somehow we survived and continued to do our work. Now I want the group to survive another 44 years.”
“No Se Paga, We Won’t Pay!” by Dario Fo
Directed by Manuel Jose Pickett
Performance Dates: March 7 to 31