Members of the Youth Empowerment Performance Project, from left, Gregory Slater, Kahari Gaiter, and Executive Artistic Director Bonsai Bermudez, circle up before the debut of “FACES” at the Free Street Theater on Thursday, June 12. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

As a child in Puerto Rico, Bonsai Bermudez empathized with the homeless people he encountered on the streets. He wanted to understand “What brought them to that point,” he said.

Today, Bermudez, 32, works with homeless LGBTQ youth as executive artistic director and co-founder of the Youth Empowerment Performance Project (YEPP). Created in 2011, the program uses theater based on the young people’s experiences to help them channel their emotions and convenes workshops and forums on issues they face. The mission of the program is to help them find “their own power,” Bermudez said. The idea developed from Bermudez’s work as a resource advocate at Broadway Youth Center, which serves LGBTQ homeless youth.

YEPP, which is supported by grants and donations, also allows Bermudez to tap his degree and background in theater and dance. “I think of myself as an artist using art as a survival tool as well,” he said. “I feel art has the power to heal and transform.”

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Bermudez after the debut of YEPP’s latest production, “FACES,” which explores “street-based queer youth experiences.”

What are the goals of YEPP?

I think the only goal is to make sure young people are getting what they need emotionally and spiritually. The goal is for them to find who they are and what they really want in their lives, and also discovering how they would like to move forward. It’s very abstract and broad, but in order to achieve that goal we need food, transportation, materials and lots of other things.

Why are programs like YEPP important in light of the need for shelter, education, and jobs?

Doing resource advocacy work in the past years, we think that the work [of helping homeless LGBTQ youth] is done through resources. “You need housing? Let us house you. You need a job? Well, let us just find you a job.” We forget most of the time that people have emotional needs. They may have an amazing job or an amazing house, but not having an emotional life that is organized and grounded can [lead them] into making decisions that will hinder any tangible resource. So I think what YEPP brings is this other layer that is not taken care of: The emotional growth needed to make sure when people get a house or a job they have the emotional power to keep and sustain that resource.

What obstacles have you faced in establishing the program?

As someone who is progressive, I have difficulty [calling] them obstacles. We have challenges. I think the biggest challenge is having young people experience [the lack of] some of their basic needs such as housing, food, and transportation. … It impacts the momentum of the program. This year we have had around 15 to 20 different ensemble members coming in and out. Five is our [minimum] number. So every time someone goes away, I find another young person to step up. For example, sometimes they get locked up, because they don’t have food, so they have to steal food. Other times the process we go through is intense, and they say ‘It’s too intense for me right now; I am not ready for the process.’ Then they step back.

How did your and your team prepare for the production of “FACES” at Free Street Theater?

“FACES” and all the performances that we do are based on young people’s real lives and true experiences. Theater in general or as a big picture is complicated and hectic. So when you bring the layer of true stories, then theater becomes not 100 percent acting, but a self-life component, which brings the challenge to a whole different level. “FACES” brings a lot of grounding, self-care and processing. The grounding has to be individual and as a group.

Where do you see YEPP in 10 years?

My dream in 10 years is to have a building where we have our own theater and dorms for people to call their home for their work. I would love to have full staff, some willing to work with resource advocacy and some artistic [staff]. I think all the elements we need would be there to make sure we meet [young people’s] needs, so they don’t have to get locked up or find ways to survive out there. Of course, to get there we would need a lot of support, networking and development —from community involvement to funding, resources and quality staff.

How do you feel about being recognized as a mentor to youth in the LGBTQ community outside of theater?

It’s an honor to build that relationship with young people and build that trust. It’s a big responsibility. As a mentor and someone that they can trust I have to be very careful, because any slip can be a disaster. You can have good intentions, but through their lenses they can perceive it differently. With the trust that we have, they can call me out. … Then we have a conversation, and if I have to hold myself accountable, I do it. But it’s a privilege and honor to be recognized like that.

Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

is an intern at The Chicago Reporter.