Academic journal article TheatreForum

Theatre, Spiritual Healing, and Democracy in the City: Go Ye Therefore. in Katrina+5 New Orleans

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Theatre, Spiritual Healing, and Democracy in the City: Go Ye Therefore. in Katrina+5 New Orleans

Article excerpt

A wounded house in New Orleans, still gutted five years after the hurricane. The audience sits in three long rows listening to the hum of cicadas. A fair-skinned woman appears in the yard riding an auburn horse. She is wearing a sleeveless, one-piece silk pantsuit printed with several psalms and Matthew 28:19-20: "Go Ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." She speaks of her family's "legacy" as settlers, Christians, and preachers in the American "Wild West." As she turns to depart, a voice draws the audience's gaze upward to the roof of the house where, we notice for the first time, four crosses stand. An African American woman emerges from within the crosses wearing an identical pantsuit. [Photo 1] "Mine is a family of witnesses," she declares (Randels et al.). Christians and Zimbabweans now living in the United States, their legacy is to "observe, testify and bear witness" to that which is produced by racism, resistance, and struggles for cultural domination within the global Baptist church and within empire.

These oppositional statements from horseback and on high framed the opening of ArtSpot Productions's site-specific performance in New Orleans, Go Ye Therefore.... Directed by Ashley Sparks, Go Ye centered on the personal narratives of Kathy Randels, ArtSpot's longtime artistic director, and Rebecca Mwase, a young, recent addition to the company, about their experiences as daughters and granddaughters of Baptist preachers. In their performance, Mwase and Randels employed song, movement, and personal storytelling to meditate on their racial differences and spiritual commonalities and to seek ways to build a resistant, feminine agency out of the troubled legacy that their fathers, their churches, and their home communities have constructed for them.

Go Ye was staged in May and June 2010 in the backyard of a house in the Gentilly neighborhood, a racially diverse area of New Orleans that has only seen a 35% residential return since Hurricane Katrina. Here, in this half-empty neighborhood, one would not expect to find crowds of local residents and national theatre makers spraying bug spray on themselves beneath ancient oak trees in anticipation of participating in a major theatre event. But in the past two decades, ArtSpot's magical, site-specific productions have earned them a growing local and national reputation, and they are capable of drawing a crowd wherever they stage a performance. Since Katrina, ArtSpot's performances tend to take place in surprising public and private spaces in the city's most devastated neighborhoods. These productions balance delicately on the border between provocative performance art and community-engaged, participatory theatre. Go Ye goes further, theorizing independent theatre as the art form most capable of imagining and enacting a new kind of urban democracy that draws on collective memories to enter the realm of the spiritual wherein love, justice, and forgiveness can be found.

ArtSpot began in the 1990s, when Randels, a native of New Orleans and a rising international performance artist, generated the company as a venue for her mostly solo work. ArtSpot soon transformed into an ensemble. Equally inspired by community-based theatre practices in the US and European "Third Theatre," the company's collaborative creation methods involve painstaking physical training, community-engaged research, and the construction of non-linear performances rooted in personal stories and community histories. ArtSpot trains local youth and incarcerated women in these methods via their educational programs in the New Orleans Public Schools and in a Louisiana women's prison (Michna 544).

Since 2005, ArtSpot has broadened its communityengagement methods to produce performance projects that help transform the racial divide in New Orleans and heal local individuals and communities from the material, psychic, and spiritual damage that the 2005 "Federal Flood" inflicted. …

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