How NOT to be a gentrifier with your theater: a starter list

I spent this past weekend at the Network of Ensemble Theater’s MicroFest in New Orleans. Organized by the lovely Ashley Sparks, this festival and conference think tank presented some amazing work by local ensemble theaters and local organizations that use art and performance to do social justice organizing. Participants included ArtSpot Productions, Junebug Productions, New Noise, Mondo Bizarro, Goat in the Road, Resurrection after Exoneration, Kids ReThink New Orleans Schools, Jose Torres-Tama and ArteFuturo Productions, and many others.

Net MicroFest was designed to raise challenging questions about ethics and aesthetics in community-engaged theatre production. The core questions for the weekend and for all four of NET’s MicroFests around the US this year are as follows:

  • What does the work look like?
  • What makes the work work?
  • How does place impact art?
  • How does art impact place?

(see Pam Korza’s outline of these questions for more thoughts on how NET MicroFests were designed to collaboratively generate answers to these important queries).

Throughout this weekend’s MicroFest artists took notes about the ethics and aesthetics of place-based theatre in contemporary cities. I look forward to seeing those notes. But I also took my own. The biggest issue that came up for me during the weekend was the impasse around race and gentrification that underlies seemingly all critical dialogues about theatre in post-Katrina New Orleans. At NetFest there was a lot of honest dialogue about this impasse. There were also moments of unchecked white privilege that produced frustration and sadness in the anti-racists of all colors and backgrounds who were witness to them.

In response to these tense moments, my notes from the weekend are a compilation of how white artists might use their work to push against, rather than roll with and increase, structures of racism and gentrification in the city. I’ll share them with you here in list form!

How NOT to be a Gentrifier with your Theater Projects

A set of New Orleans specific guidelines–written for white theatre artists, especially those who are new to New Orleans.

This is a starter list that needs your critique and additions! If you read it, please add a comment. 

1. If you, like so many others, are thinking of resettling in New Orleans in order to make theatre here (or if you recently moved here), don’t arrive unprepared. Learn the history and culture of this city before you settle here AND before you start to do your work. Also, as you study and talk to people about New Orleans as a place and as a community, think carefully about why you desire(d) to move here. Cultivate honest self-reflections about this question before you start “engaging” with local communities.

Note 1: If you claim to LOVE second lines, but your first instinct in conversations with your fellow white artists is to label un-gentrified black neighborhoods as “dangerous” or “under-developed” places, you need to go back and start from scratch.

Note 2: As you learn about the culture that thrives in working class African American communities in this city, resist the urge to romanticize that culture as historic (i.e. merely of the past), static, or “authentically” New Orleans (i.e. local not global in outlook). Instead, think seriously about how African American cultural traditions are incorporated, dynamically, into everyday life here even as they express a broad critique of the nation and global economic structures of oppression. Seek to understand the assets that these practices and the neighborhoods that produce them give to YOU, as a resident of New Orleans, every day.

Note 3: You can learn about New Orleans culture and history from reading (Go to the Community Book Center, see Common Ground’s excellent starter list of books and articles, or read Students at the Center’s book about the long (and ongoing) civil rights movement in New Orleans, The Long Ride), but such learning is more powerful if it also comes from conversations with community elders. Building relationships with artists and culture makers who have roots in New Orleans takes time and will probably require many difficult false starts and do-overs. Take the time to do this work and to learn how to do it well before you start building new projects and institutions in the city.

2. If you are white, take white privilege seriously. Take advantage of local resources, such as the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond trainings that occur in New Orleans on a regular basis. Spend the dime and the time to understand what racism is and to understand your own position within our nation’s racist social structures. If you do not do this, your work will serve to further entrench the racism that already thrives here.

Note: Taking white privilege seriously also means recognizing that the process of becoming a white anti-racist is a lifelong one. One workshop or even several weekends of training is not sufficient.

3. Do you imagine that your work is saving, helping, or healing New Orleans, especially African American residents in New Orleans? If even a tiny part of you answered “Yes” to this question, then take a moment to learn about and talk with your peers about cultural imperialism as well as racism.

To start: Read THIS essay by Kalamu ya Salaam for some local context on how cultural and economic imperialism works in New Orleans-past and present.

Next: Ask one of your Teach for America friends if you can sit in one one of their classes–find a KIPP or ReNew school for an especially powerful lesson in what imperialism looks like in New Orleans.

Ask yourself: What kinds of imperialism do you see at work in our city’s public schools? How is imperialism tied to racism and to economics and power? What is the difference between solidarity and charity?

Then ask yourself, what else can your work do that’s productive if it acknowledges that it cannot save the city and that, if anything, it will probably have the tendency to further the gentrification and structural racism that already thrives here?

4. Participatory or interactive theatre is as trendy as it is important and transformative. Embrace your desire to learn from New Orleans’s African American cultural traditions in order to generate new forms of participation in your productions. However, think with intention about who your audience will be and where their participation will occur. Here are some suggestions about how to do so:

First, Resist the impulse to be yet-another-arts-group that leads a bus full of white people into the Ninth Ward and plops them down for a participatory “social justice” performance that doesn’t engage in a sustained and reciprocal/respectful way with Ninth Ward residents. The same goes for other primarily working class and non-white neighborhoods. Don’t be a geographic pioneer–there are plenty of other, fruitful ways to do original performance work.

Second, if you want to see a start-to-scratch model of how NOT to approach participatory, community-engaged theatre in this city, Read Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot production “Field Guide.” If you’re having a hard time understanding what’s not to like about this model, TALK to the members of and STUDY the aesthetics of locally rooted theatre organizations who have reputations for generating sustained accountability within local communities, such as the Free Southern Theater, Junebug Productions, Ashe Cultural Arts Center, and ArtSpot Productions.

Third, remember the hardest and most important rule of participatory performance work–your audience members are the makers of the content of the work, too. Recognize the different and diverging knowledges that local audiences might bring to your productions. Cultivate the sharing of those knowledges as a part of the work. Junebug Productions’ STORY CIRCLE process is a fantastic locally-rooted tool that will enable you to do so. Fundraise in order to pay for first-hand training in this important process.

5. When you fundraise, recognize the disparities that shape where foundation resources go. Find ways to work around the reality that most resources go to projects that are not asking the kinds of hard questions that you are asking. Privilege gives to privilege–if your project gets huge support from local developers or foundations, think about why that might be. Is there an element of your work that’s subtly furthering racism?

Also, if you do get funding, do the hard work to make sure that your project or your institution contributes to resisting, not deepening, gentrification in New Orleans. This is especially true if you are doing sustained work in one area of the city. Make sure that you share the resources you obtain by paying the local organizations and the locally grounded people who inform and deepen your work. Do not just seize resources, make work, collect your accolades, and leave. 

This is just a starter list based on my observations of theatre institutions and productions in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. I hope you add to it by posting your own recommendations below!

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14 comments

  1. Kate

    Great thoughts here–thank you! Thank you also for the incredibly basic reminder that *you can learn about a place by reading.” Do your homework, people (me included)!

  2. Woohoo! My eyeballs nearly popped out when I saw the title of your latest post in my facebook feed. I think about this topic a lot and I’m going to be dramaturg for a play about gentrification in the spring so it’s especially on my mind.

    I think if someone is asking the question “how can I NOT be a gentrifier” that’s probably a good starting point (as opposed to being totally oblivious) but it might also be a false question. For young artists of privilege moving to New Orleans I think it is nearly impossible not to contribute to gentrification on an individual level because gentrification is a social/economic/political phenomenon that is bigger than any individual artist of theater company. My individual decision about what neighborhood to live and work in isn’t going to determine whether rents go up and residents are pushed out; it’s a systemic problem. Simply by showing up we are changing the demographics and that contributes to gentrification. However, I also think it is possible for individuals and groups of artists, even as we are implicit in gentrification, to also be actively working against it and your thoughts strike me as essential reading for many of us.

    Under #2 I would add a sub-point (using “we” pronouns below because I think I need to work on these things too):
    -For white artists, actively identify as white and acknowledge how our work is shaped by white culture(s) and might appeal to a white audience. If we are attracting a mostly white audience, think about how we can have a dialogue with this audience about racism and white supremacy in a meaningful way. That would be way more useful than “helping” people of color with our projects.

    • Rachel, what great comments! I really agree about the issue of using “we” pronouns (I need to do that too) and acknowledging the realities of having white audiences, and trying to do anti-racist work fruitfully within those audiences. I can’t wait to learn more about your theater project this spring!

  3. Thanks so much for taking the time and care to post this. This is a fantastic challenge for artists of all races.

    In that spirit, I was struck that the post merely focused on the White and African American members of the community. There is a substantial Latino and Asian community there (and many other ethnicities). If we want to interrogate race and racists practices, as you suggest, we have to check ourselves so that in trying to undo one type of racism, we don’t unintentionally advance another kind of racism. As I read this, I felt as if you further marginalized a vast segment of the population that’s already pretty marginalized. Race conversations have to go beyond the Black and White members of a community or else we are simply advancing the very thing we are trying to undo. It’s racism.

    I sincerely appreciate what is clearly meant as a call for greater thought, care and practice, and I genuinely hope that as this work continues, we can find a way into real inclusion.

    • Mark,
      Thanks so much for these insights. I learned a great deal from the NET Microfest, and I’m really appreciative of all the conversations that you guys kickstarted here in New Orleans. You inspire me to want to keep writing and thinking about race, marginalization, and inclusion in the arts in New Orleans, and to be better attuned to all of the complexities that these conversations entail.

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  5. Excellent post. Necessary questions. For my own reality check, I keep this quote handy (I found it on a wall in NYC’s lower east side): “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” — Lill Watson, aboriginal activist.

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  7. From my experience working in museums, I believe the points you bring up go beyond theatre and New Orleans and are applicable to any form of so called “socially engaged art” across the U.S. The form of critical analysis you engage in is much needed in all sectors of the arts nation wide. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

  8. me

    This article is great – really important for my company to think about as a bunch a white people making theater in not-necessarily-white Reading, PA, formerly the poorest city in America. We are so privileged, on a variety of levels, and while I hate getting stuck thinking only about whiteness and privelege, because then it becomes useless, we have to think about it.

    This article really got me in the wanting to “help” the city, the poor people, the kids. I have always enjoyed teaching the “City” kids more than the “suburban” kids, and I wrestle with it to make sure I’m making choices for the right reasons.

    With my company, Reading Theater Project, I want to make theater in the city of Reading. I want to add to the cultural landscape, which is vibrant and diverse, I think, just overshadowed by crime, poverty, and under-education. I just want to make sure I and we are there for the right reasons.

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  10. Thank you Catherine. This helped me think through the socially-engaged art we participate in in Tokyo, Japan where I live…

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