This article was first published April 24, 2021 in The DC Line here.
Washington, DC, may bring home an Oscar this Sunday.
Mike Capbarat, currently a producer for the DC-based storytelling studio Duke & Duck, is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film as a producer of “Burrow” from Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios. Capbarat worked with director Maddie Sharafian from 2018 until the film’s release in 2020, when it premiered Dec. 25 in conjunction with Pixar’s feature film “Soul.”
“In making a short film, especially an animated short film, the big win is just finishing,” Capbarat said. “It was just a story with the message to warm people’s hearts and families. … You never expect to be nominated for anything.”
“Burrow” follows an independent, even stubborn, rabbit attempting to dig her perfect home, away from her neighbors who offer their assistance and friendship. After struggling to realize her dream on her own, the rabbit finally learns the simple lesson that it’s OK to ask for help.
“Burrow” was part of Pixar’s SparkShorts program, which Capbarat described as an “incubator system” that allows new storytellers to get assistance from small teams of animators and artists throughout the studio. As participants in the SparkShorts program, Sharafian and Capbarat knew they could ask for help from their teammates.
“It feels like we experienced the lesson of the movie while making the movie with our team,” Capbarat said. He recalled times when he and Sharafian didn’t know exactly how to execute their vision for the story, so they turned to other Pixar teammates for support. “We kind of learned the lesson of the movie ourselves. … Everyone at Pixar was gung-ho to have your back especially if you have that vulnerability.”
“Burrow” was Capbarat’s last project at Pixar, where he spent 12 years working on films like “Coco” and “Toy Story 4.”
Capbarat moved to the District in early 2020, making his new home official last year when he got his DC driver’s license on Feb. 18. He now lives about two blocks north of the Lincoln Memorial with his wife, who is doing her medical residency at George Washington University Hospital. It was Capbarat’s wife who insisted they both watch the announcement of the Academy Award nominations. Capbarat said he jumped over his chair when “Burrow” was the first film called.
Caparat is relishing in his work with Duke & Duck, especially on a project for the American Red Cross writing short-form stories about emergency preparedness for kids.
“Everybody has a story to tell, and we want to tell that story. It doesn’t matter what the project is, big or small,” Capbarat said. “Getting to work on a project that means something, that’s the most exciting thing for me.”
Capbarat has rented a tuxedo for his night of stars on Sunday, when for the first time ever the Academy Awards will be hosted outside at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Capbarat and his wife will be attending alongside other nominees like Frances McDormand and Aaron Sorkin, both of whom Capbarat said he’d love to meet.
“I grew up staying up to watch this stuff on TV,” Capbarat said about the Oscars. “It always feels so far away, like a dream. Does that really happen? Do movie stars really get together to celebrate movies, the thing that I love? It’s almost like meeting your hero.”
Capbarat has prepared a brief speech should he and Sharafian win for Best Animated Short Film: “A little bit of me wants to call out to our younger selves and say, ‘You can do this. Making movies is in reach for many, more than you think.’ I would want to tell my younger self that.”
In a residence at Kennedy Center, the group takes a unique approach to centering and empowering marginalized artists.
By Jordan Ealey
This article was first published April 17, 2021 in DC Metro Theater Arts here.
The convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the political uprisings resulting from the anti-Black violence that killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade last year (as well as the historical violence and oppression experienced by Black people in this country) have sparked an unprecedented opportunity to re-examine multiple institutions. “Re” seems to be an important prefix for the multiple reckonings occurring at this time (with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s project Reset and Roundabout Theatre Company and Black Theatre United’s Refocus Project).
The Reclamation Project, a homegrown DMV collective, was one of those initiatives in response to the racial reckonings that began last summer. Dreamed up by DC actor Christopher Richardson, The Reclamation Project describes itself as aiming “to address past harm in theatrical institutions, give space for healing in this moment, and imagine a path forward by centering the voices and needs of Black artists, Indigenous artists, artists of color, LGBTQIA+ artists, and disabled artists.” Inspired by #WeSeeYouWAT, the Black DC theater roundtable, and the Gender Diverse Black Theatre Leadership roundtable, The Reclamation Project seeks to center marginalized artists and instill power back into them and their communities.
The project facilitates this goal through residencies at local theaters in the DC area. Thus far, they have had residencies at Olney Theatre Center, Source Theatre, Round House Theatre, and, most recently, The Kennedy Center. At the heart of their goals for healing is space: physical, textual, and corporeal space in theater institutions.
During their residency at Olney from August 19 through August 23, 2020, for example, Richardson and Reclamation Project artist and local dramaturg Dylan Arredondo took part in an exercise to explore space and harm. Richardson paced the Tallulah Bankhead House on Olney’s property while Arrendondo read the titles of what had been produced at Olney, stopping only when a play by a person of color was named. In this process, Richardson and the other artists noticed that among the “hundreds and hundreds of plays” that had been produced there, a very small percentage were by nonwhite artists. Of particular notice to Richardson that many of the same titles were repeated, perhaps suggesting that there were plays and playwrights that were tokenized in programming.
Another transformative experience during The Reclamation Project residency at Source Theatre was when a stage manager marked areas in the theater where they had experienced harm, whether a spot in the theater not accessible to plus-size people or disabled folks, an uncomfortable chair they were forced to sit in to call a show, or an area where the stage could not be seen when trying to do their job. These moments of healing and transformation are “based on the artists’ success and what they need,” Richardson said, because the program is most successful when artists are involved in the creation of the project.
At the forefront of the Reclamation Project’s residency at The Kennedy Center, Richardson wanted a process centered on the needs, desires, and wants of the artists involved: Tẹmídayọ Amay, Dylan Arrendondo, Renea Brown, Billie Krishawn, Larry Lewis, P. Vanessa Losada, Sam Sherman, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and Richardson. Each of the nine was tasked to present works and ideas they wanted to explore and challenge.
Richardson recalls saying to them, “You are all artists in your own right and I want you to figure out what is an ouchie for you.”
They spent the five-day residency, in Studio at The Reach March 22 to 26, responding to the works presented by each artist, ranging from an intense interrogation of the musical canon to challenging Our Town. There was a personal resonance that came with each piece. The goal was to give artists the time and resources they need to tap into their best creative selves, untethered to the capitalist demands of creating a product at the week’s end.
Part of Richardson’s own reclamation project was an exploration of the role of the servant in canonized American plays. This interest was sparked by Richardson’s personal experience playing a servant role in a production and—despite his discomfort with what the role demanded of him—being praised by white leaders in the theater. “It created an odd fissure in my being as an artist,” Richardson noted, “because I was like, ‘Well I know that I’m more than this, but there’s so much praise in this, and I don’t equate that to what I’m actually worth.” One of those works was Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Through performance Richardson critiqued the play’s treatment of the servants, especially in the scene where one of their cakes is destroyed. This was prompted by a dramaturgical question by Arrendondo: What would it be like to actually bake the cake?
“My goal is context,” Richardson remarked, noting that the dramaturgical program note or lobby display is not enough; the context needs to be on the stage during the performance itself. It comes down, according to Richardson, to “the level of excavation” required of staging (and restaging) these classic and canonized works. (This especially excited me as a dramaturg, as this excavation work makes one question the dramaturgical, directorial, and design choices that go into this intense critical engagement.)
Alongside the internal work done with the artists as part of the process, The Reclamation Project also held two public Zooms at the beginning and end of the residencies. I attended both of those conversations, which opened up some very fascinating points of conversation from among the participants and the public. During the first public conversation, a ton of topics emerged as a way to begin the engagement that would inevitably shape the rest of the week. One came up in a discussion of audience versus community, with the difference being that one watches (audience) and another engages (community). This prompted the question “Is your audience your community?”
Another particularly evocative question asked was “What is the hierarchy of harm?” The artists then explored their different relationships to trauma and harm in the theater, as Arredondo brought up a piece written by Amissa Miller, a dramaturg and professor, that interrogates Jackie Sibblies Drury Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fairview, its relationship to Black precarity, and the problem of spectatorship. A lively discussion of the exclusionary process of canon-making engendered an insight by Renea Brown, who specializes in Shakespearean works, to really challenge her fellow artists to question exactly why certain plays need to be gotten rid of.
Friday’s conversation was mainly in response to all that the artists had experienced throughout the week. It seemed that a lot of the same topics were being explored, in addition to communal questioning and input about what might make American theater, especially in the DC area, better. Tẹmídayọ Amay explained that during the residency, the artists were “being transparent about their needs [and] diving into truth-telling exercises,” while Kara-Tameika Watkins noted that it was “a judgment-free zone” where they were free to explore safely and comfortably. In valuing process over product, it seemed to me, their presence in the space fostered community that resulted in transformative artistry.
Of special importance, especially to Richardson, is centering community and care in theater spaces. Many of the folks (both in the room and in the Zoom chat) named specific instances of harm that came to them by way of working in regional theaters. There were discussions of producers not attending to their specific needs, directors who had no idea how to work with performers in ways that did not harm them, and particular works that needed to be left behind. All of the instances were directly tied to issues of inequity involving racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism. The participants in the residency were focused on uplifting artists as autonomous collaborators and it showed in this conversation.
It seems important to note that the artists of The Reclamation Project are not interested in a total rejection of the theater. (I asked a question about the abolition of the role of the director, which initially engendered a lot of visceral physical responses.) Richardson, instead, pointed out that it is about “transfiguration of the role” and de-centering the cisgender, white, able-bodied, and male people who have come to define what the canon is and how theater has traditionally been done. This seems to be a goal of the collective in general: an investment in transforming and empowering marginalized artists and facilitating processes that are invested in the same. It is about redirecting resources rather than ridding it altogether. Billie Krishawn responded that producers should choose artists who are interested in collaboration, not only their own visions.
These responses challenged my own view of what anti-racist, anti-oppression work can look like in American theater. They showed me—a self-described “Black feminist killjoy—that community and care, rather than wholesale rejection, can be the true antidote to harm. Committing oneself to true change is actually much harder to do. I appreciate The Reclamation Project artists for their willingness to engage in that work.
In her book Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity, cultural theorist and dramaturg Dorinne Kondo explores what she refers to as “reparative creativity,” which she describes as “the ways artists make, unmake, remake race in their creative processes, in acts of always partial integration and repair.” I see The Reclamation Project actively practicing artistic practice as a work of repair and healing and harnessing the transgressive possibilities of theater-making and creative collaboration. This also involves rethinking who is a part of the new possibilities of equity and justice.
Richardson pointed out, in our conversation, that when institutions think about racial equity and justice, they often leave out the janitorial and cleaning support staff. “Because they also work for you, they also should be a part of the conversation on equity and diversity. […] They are a part of your organization.” It’s these kinds of thought-provoking inquiries and observations that make The Reclamation Project’s approach to working toward and struggling for justice for underserved and marginalized communities in the theater industry a truly unique one. When I asked Richardson what he would like to see happen with The Reclamation Project long-term, he envisions full productions of the works created during the residency, long-term devising workshops, and even facilitations for theaters.
But their big goal for the project? To facilitate partnerships with community organizations for social justice advocacy. Richardson, in particular, dreams of a brick-and-mortar place that provides a safety net for impacted people. “I’m really interested in a space where folks can come and that is really neutral ground that can provide a lot of resources to the community.”
As a Black theater artist, I have been a part of (and even led) many discussions in the last year about “the future of American theater.” We are in an extraordinary moment where in-person performances and productions are at a halt and many people have referred to it as theater being shut down. But what The Reclamation Project demonstrates is that there are many people, especially from marginalized communities, who are doing meaningful creative work right now. Broadway and other large institutions may be closed, but theatrical work is still continuing. Even when I look at my own engagement in theater over the last year, I have worked more than I ever have. Theater work has become more accessible than ever and collectives like The Reclamation Project are not simply challenging the existing industry but actively (re)working the practice of theater itself.
This article was first published April 5, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.
Candice Taylor got her start as an artist drawing on walls as a child. When her father was tired of cleaning walls, he helped her channel that energy into coloring comic strips and painting doll houses he built.
Taylor is the co-founder of CreativeJunkFood, a multimedia creative studio founded in 2010 that explores areas of public art, experiential art, and installations. The studio also hosts workshops and works regularly with museums and schools.
Taylor considers herself an artist-activist. “Art with function” is what drives her work. Recently, CreativeJunkFood partnered with the Civil Rights Corps to create graphics for criminal injustice initiatives and events honoring the leadership of Black women. They also animated a video for Stonegate Filmworks called “Turn it Blue,” a schoolhouse rock-style video advocating for voting blue in Georgia during the 2020 election season.
“It’s one thing to be an artist and make beautiful images, but it’s another thing to create art that also functions, and that also goes to better people’s lives and empower movement [and] social commentary,” says Taylor.
Much of Taylor’s work is community-focused. As a Washington, D.C.-based organization, CreativeJunkFood regularly designs community art, like a #LoveShaw animation and Ward 7 Speaks murals, and is working on the branding and launch for an upcoming refurbished Metro railcar coming to the District this spring.
One aspect of community art Taylor particularly enjoys is connecting with younger kids and artists as an educator. In the future, she says she hopes to expand workshops to make the “wealth of information more available.”
“That’s what empowers me when I’m thinking about that social justice…being able to help this younger generation,” she says. “I feel like those voices are the voices we need to be listening to, so I’m doing whatever I can do to amplify that.”
According to Taylor, coming from a marginalized community and now being an artist has positioned her uniquely to understand the impact and value of art in daily life. Taylor says she is determined to use her art to create an environment that she wished she had as a kid—she was encouraged to pursue her dreams but didn’t necessarily have the resources to accompany them.
In her own words, Taylor has a “tenacity for breaking barriers,” which she says means simply not seeing them at all.
“It’s just a constant climb, it’s this constant ‘What’s next?’ and it’s constantly challenging of yourself, it’s challenging the norms,” Taylor explains. “That’s why I have all these colors in my hair—that’s why I show up to my business meetings in the same outfit that I wear when I’m painting a mural.”
She views being a lesbian in the same vein—it’s not something she ever tries to hide, but also not something that she feels she has to flaunt.
“It’s a package, and I approach it as such,” Taylor says. “It’s about being really unapologetic about it.”
Last year, the festival was canceled just as it was slated to begin because of the worsening coronavirus pandemic and ensuing public health restrictions. Organizers then scrambled and put many of its films online. This year, however, DCEFF programmed a completely virtual festival that still connects with audiences and spreads its message of environmental awareness through film.
Brad Forder, the festival’s director of programming, said the event will promote hope, positivity and movement forward under President Joe Biden’s new administration.
“We find hope through individuals and their hard work, and a lot of our filmmakers show that,” Forder said. “We have hope from seeing these environmental heroes.”
One featured filmmaker is DC native Annie Kaempfer, who grew up in various Northwest neighborhoods. Her film, The Falconer, follows the story of Rodney Stotts, an African American Washingtonian whose life revolves around birding and falconry. Stotts is one of very few Black falconers in the nation, and he has used his expert knowledge to teach DC youth about nature, environmentalism and conservation. Kaempfer said Stotts brings birds with him when he teaches, and that physical connection has an amazing impact.
This is Kaempfer’s first feature-length film, and its initial DCEFF screening today at noon will be its East Coast premiere. The film will be available for streaming throughout the rest of the 11-day festival.
“Rodney’s story is universal, but there’s something about the film being homegrown and shown [locally]. … I’m so excited to bring a portrait of a DC native to the public to remind them we’re real people, it’s not just Capitol Hill,” Kaempfer said. “One person has a lot of power to make a difference. … I hope Rodney and this film can be an inspiration to people, that doing one little thing can make a big difference.”
Kaempfer met Stotts in 2013 and began making this film in 2014. She delayed premiering her film last year because she worried how a virtual premiere would impact sales and distribution. She decided to premiere her film in October when she realized that virtual screenings were not negatively impacting film sales.
After winning multiple prizes, like the first-place Storytellers Award at Destiny City Film Festival in Washington state, The Falconer was picked up by PBS to be part of its programming this summer.
Forder said that DCEFF — now in its 29th year — has always looked for local creatives to include in the festival, and organizers have always partnered with local groups to premiere films throughout the District. The screening of The Falconer is co-presented by Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC), located in Ward 8.
Accessible films and diverse content and audiences have been a consistent part of the festival’s mission, Forder said.
“We want to replicate that in-person, theater experience as much as possible,” Forder said of this year’s online offerings.
With an all-virtual festival, Forder noted that DCEFF’s programming can now include more international filmmakers and special guests who no longer need to travel to participate. DCEFF has scheduled multiple live events like filmmaker Q&As and post-screening panels that will allow audiences to participate through Zoom or Facebook Live.
“DCEFF has always been better than, I think, every other festival in terms of inclusivity and accessibility,” Kaempfer said. “Virtual screenings have increased that access even more.”
How an opportunity at Woolly Mammoth to create a “new canon” became a celebration of inclusion.
By Jordan Ealey
This article was first published March 17, 2021 in DC Metro Theater Arts here.
Questions of “canon” have haunted me throughout my theatrical education and subsequent professional career. As a precocious young child obsessed with the performing arts, I searched and searched for Black girls’ and women’s presences in the theater I was being exposed to, always disappointed when I felt I could not find it. This constant search has followed me throughout my educational career in theater and performance, especially as I embarked on a search for Black woman–authored works in musical theater. Happening upon the work of Pauline Hopkins in scholar Daphne A. Brooks’s award-winning critical text, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910, was a crucial moment: I was exposed to Hopkins’s esteemed career not only as a writer, journalist, and archivist but as the first African American to have a musical produced in the United States. How, in all of my years of theater education, had I never heard of this brilliant and path-breaking woman? So when I had the opportunity to expose her historically significant work to the theatergoing public, I happily accepted the offer.
The opportunity came from Maria Goyanes, artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, who sought to create a project that challenged and rethought public knowledge of particular artists. She had been struck by a collaboration that Woolly presented seasons ago with The Lab for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, which featured Woolly Company Members Jon Hudson Odom and Rick Foucheux portraying James Baldwin and Studs Turkel respectively in a scene that to Goyanes was “revelatory.” What particularly moved her, she wrote later, was “hearing Baldwin’s words embodied by a 21st century actor.” Inspired, Goyanes invited a group of theater artists to collaborate on a project that would rethink and reshape the concept of the “canon.” The project would be a “power-sharing model” in which both established and emerging theater artists would have an artistic voice in a large arts institution, buoyed by last summer’s We See You, White American Theater, a collective of theater artists of color that challenges the racial and ethnic exclusion within the American theater industry.
The group of invited curators — Nicole Brewer, Faedra Chatard Carpenter, Kristen Jackson, Leticia Ridley, Nikkole Salter, and myself — embarked on generating an equally conscious and complex artistic intervention: a “new canon.” Goyanes’s charge for us was to curate a collection of pieces to challenge perceptions of people that we do not know, that we think we know, and that we have yet to know. The project, now known as Reset, was to begin an enriching conversation on how we celebrate and engage a diverse repertoire of cultural, social, political, and artistic works across time, space, location, and identity.
The five other curators and I brainstormed for a while on people and works that impacted our lives in meaningful and distinctive ways, relying not solely on a shared category of “Black womanhood,” but rather on elevating our relationships to the people and communities who have helped shape us on our personal, creative, and scholarly trajectories. Some of my favorite moments working on this project were from those early meetings with the other curators, where we would ruminate on the people whom we have thought alongside. As Nikkole Salter proclaimed, Reset is “a deeply personal project,” culled together from women, both ancestral and still living, who touched us all. “As we move forward as a human species, it’s important to acknowledge that we are all a part of the story, and allowing our focus to shift to the voices of those who have willfully been excluded is necessary for the restoration of truth and the understanding of life itself.”
Our selections spanned an extraordinary range of fields: playwrights and librettists Pauline Hopkins, Rita Dove, Zora Neale Hurston, and Vy Higginsen; director Dr. Barbara Ann Teer; poets Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde; actor Hattie McDaniel; activists Ida B. Wells and the Combahee River Collective; and lighting designer Kathy Perkins. Alongside videos of short selections from their work (either embodied by actors or in archival and documentary-style footage), the entire curatorial team also provided dramaturgical content about each of the women featured as well as recommendations for further exploration. We wanted the site to be not only a rigorous artistic project but also an educational tool.
For instance, my research interests and passions are in excavating the history of Black women in musical theater and popular music history, so I knew that I wanted to include someone from that ongoing research in our new canon. I landed on Pauline Hopkins, a 19th- and early 20th-century novelist, journalist, and playwright. Many folks, particularly within the scholarly world, are familiar with Hopkins’s work as a novelist (she wrote romance novels and is speculated to have been one of the first to incorporate understandings around race into the genre) as well as her journalistic contributions (she was the longtime editor of Colored American Magazine), but she is rarely situated within theatrical contexts and certainly not known by the larger theatergoing public. It felt only right, then, to follow the impulse to reset public knowledge and history by featuring Hopkins’s musical comedy, Peculiar Sam, or, The Underground Railroad.
The musical follows a group of enslaved people as they plot to escape via The Underground Railroad to Canada to achieve their freedom. Collaborating with director Tyler Thomas, whose artistry and vision enriched this play in ways I could not have imagined, I selected an excerpt from the script where Sam, the titular character, and his comrades on their plantation are plotting their escape and eventually travel to their first “stop” on the Underground Railroad. As written, the excerpt also includes the song “Steal Away,” which is to be sung as they transition to their first stop. Knowing the limitations of synchronous singing on Zoom, Tyler and I devised a plan to incorporate the words “steal away” both in dialogue and to close the excerpt. The result is a creative interpretation of the song’s narrative function: an invitation to choose freedom.
Other curated pieces were inspired by our vastly different life experiences. Leticia Ridley, my creative collaborator on our podcast Daughters of Lorraine, selected Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping,” a poem dedicated to celebrating the strength and beauty of Black women. Leticia was inspired to include this piece by her love of “Black women talkin’ their shit.” Originally, she wanted to film actors Paige Hernandez and Natasha Ofili in a cypher-style video, like the ones originating in rap battles, but could not do so due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the work by Hernandez and Ofili is equal parts fun and poignant, featuring Giovanni’s unforgettable words and their fluid movement. One of Faedra Chatard Carpenter’s pieces is a diary entry from journalist-activist Ida B. Wells, who inspired Carpenter not simply because of Wells’s important work in bringing the anti-Black violence against African Americans to national attention, but also because of her position as a mother. Carpenter, a mother herself, looked up to Wells’s ability to juggle motherhood while also fighting for the Black community.
Anti-racist facilitator, professor, and performer Nicole Brewer’s curation of a monologue by Hattie McDaniel encourages audiences to rethink how we perceive the Oscar-winning actress, who portrayed “Mammy” in Gone With the Wind. Kristen Jackson, Woolly’s director of connectivity, infused Black feminism into the collection through her curated piece, the Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement,” delivered by actors Sisi Reid, Amiah McGinty, and Patience Sings. Reading and rereading that classic manifesto inspired me to claim Black feminism as my political, intellectual, and artistic ethos. Hearing its words aloud in Reset nearly brought me to tears and will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of Black feminists.
Nikkole Salter’s pieces — which include performances of both Phebe’s monologue (portrayed by DC-area actress Shannon Dorsey) from Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth and an excerpt from Vy Higginsen’s long-running off-Broadway musical, Mama, I Want to Sing (portrayed by Ahmaya Knoelle Higginson) — are also significant interlocutors in Black theater history. Her pieces on Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theatre, and Kathy Perkins, professional lighting designer and editor of the first anthology of Black women playwrights, are more like short documentaries on the two women’s significant contributions, which call for even more study, engagement, and celebration. Of the authors whose work Nikkole curated, she mused, “They are people who found a way to use what existed to make room for those people and perspectives that were being ignored and excluded.”
The Reset digital collection reminds us that there is always more work to be done to sing the voices that remain, to some, unsung. Working on this project has clarified my interest in history and maintaining an intimate yet critical distance to it. I wholeheartedly believe that Black women and their work are worthy of intense scholarly and artistic engagement. When rehearsing Peculiar Sam we discussed the fact this musical comedy needs to be fully staged. Why run from this history when playwrights such as Shakespeare and Molière are consistently programmed even to this day? I want Reset to spark those conversations and potentials for future theatrical programming.
This article was first published February 3, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.
Actress and activist Josephine Baker found the stage when she was barely a teenager, struggling with homelessness and poverty in St. Louis, but her enchanting presence on stages across the world would make her a memorable queer and Black icon.
In 1922, Baker performed in Shuffle Along, one of the first popular American Broadway musicals written and composed and performed by Black artists and Black actors. After this debut, she quickly became a star on stages both in the theatrical and political worlds.
Baker was celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City, a time of artistic and personal growth that championed Black identity and creativity in America. She eventually moved to Paris and performed on iconic stages and became one of the first popular Black silver screen stars in 1930.
During World War II, she assisted French operations to resist Nazi’s occupation of France. She reported Nazi secrets she overheard when performing for French rebels.
Baker returned to the United States in 1951, as the Civil Rights Movement began taking hold of politics and society. In 1963, she was one of the only women who spoke during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She toured with the NAACP and raised funds for France’s International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.
Baker was forthright about her sensuality and beauty as a Black woman. She did many photoshoots dressed in revealing clothing as well as in men’s tuxedos. Baker had four marriages throughout her lifetime and intimate relationships with women like Maude Russell, Clara Smith and Colette.
Baker died in 1975 in Paris, a few days after her final, sold-out performance.
When she spoke at the March on Washington, she expressed her power and resilience as a Black woman: “When I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”
An incisive and visceral exploration of American race relations, policing, and the criminal justice system.
By Jordan Ealey
This article was first published January 31, 2021 in DC Metro Theater Arts here.
“It’s not what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.” This quote by musician Oscar Levant is what opens the film Spook. Based on a solo stage piece by the same name, written and performed by DC theater artist Meshaun Labrone, Spook follows the final hour in the life of Darryl “Spook” Spokane, a Black former police officer. He is awaiting lethal injection for committing what is described as one of the biggest mass shootings in American history. His story has attracted significant media attention. It is in this set-up that Spook explains what was behind his violent crimes, resulting in an incisive, haunting, and visceral exploration of American race relations, policing, and the criminal justice system.
Meshaun Labrone in ‘Spook.’ Photo courtesy of Justin Featherstone.
Unlike many plays that are transformed into films, Spook (produced by Flying Scoop Productions) enhances its theatrical qualities rather than attempting to diminish or get rid of them. For instance, a common device in scriptwriting is “raising the stakes” to infuse a narrative with tension. Labrone skillfully and cleverly accomplishes this with the countdown timer, ever looming in the upper left corner of the film. We, as the audience, get to experience this man’s life slowly ticking away, literally running out of time. The narrative frame additionally includes a live televising of the lethal injection, the first one to be done in American history. Though Spook himself never touches upon this fact explicitly, one cannot help but think about what it means to see a Black man die as a part of a live broadcast, what it means for this to be the first of its kind. There were many horrific murderers in history who were still granted privacy at their deaths. Though at the film’s beginning, we learn that there is a chance for him to be granted a pardon by the Governor, it becomes clear through Spook’s story that he is not going to receive one. Spook shows no regret for the crime that he has committed; like the Levant quote that opens the film, he only mourns what he could not and did not do.
Spook’s dubious and ambiguous morality is a part of what makes the film a strong one. There are moments throughout Spook where it is both easy and difficult to “root” for him, wondering whether he is an anti-hero or a villain. The film’s darkly comic moments come unexpectedly, such as Spook’s joke about 1-800-HEP-A-NIGA, a short interlude of a “commercial” for a fictional hotline to help incarcerated Black people. Another rootable moment comes when Spook discusses his heartbreaking reason for joining the police force: to help Black people due to the injustices he both experienced and witnessed. It seems that while he does not regret the crimes he committed, he regrets that he could not be the change he wanted to see in the police force.
Certainly, moving from a stage to a screen can present problems for many productions; however, Spook skillfully navigated the adaptation. A haunting, eerie image of Spook early in the film of his darkened face gradually becoming darkened so that only his eyes remained was striking. Direction by Nate Starck leaned into the script’s dark thematic moments, retaining its theatricality in its one-room setting with focus only on the character of Spook. Labrone’s performance as Spook was captivating; though he was the sole person on screen for most of the film, he infuses the narrative with such conviction that my attention was rapt the entire time. A particularly virtuosic moment where all of the production elements coalesced beautifully was where Spook was criticizing the Black church and an organ scored his speech. The original music by Devin Spear, which could faintly be heard through the duration of the film, enhanced the dark visuals and haunting themes.
Labrone’s past as a police officer in the Washington, DC, area undoubtedly seeped into his stunning indictment of American policing. John Stoltenberg notes a similar sentiment in his 2018 review of the stage version, which debuted and ran at the Capital Fringe Festival, linking the commentary of the play to Labrone’s own lived experiences. The narrative unfolds in a way that audiences will be constantly questioning their personal biases and baggage, forced to confront realities about race in this country. But it was exactly this question of “audience” that I sat with as I viewed the film: for whom and to whom is Spook speaking?
Lawrence Glover (Prison Officer), Meshaun Labrone (Spook) and Jennifer Knight (Reporter) in ‘Spook.’ Photo courtesy of Justin Featherstone.
I could not help but cringe when the film opened and a dead Black female body covered in pools of blood flooded my screen. I viscerally reacted when Spook discussed how hard “niggas” made his job as a police officer. Yet I appreciate the ways that Spook broaches some intracommunal issues. One of Spook’s victims, a Haitian immigrant, was blatantly discriminatory toward Black Americans. Often, online spaces such as Black Twitter discuss what is referred to as the “diaspora wars,” where Black communities outside of the United States will air their grievances with the so-called monopoly on Black culture held by Black Americans. As the U.S. is a colonial force with far-reaching control of countries in the Global South, it is easy to see where the disdain comes from. My discomfort, as a Black American viewer, comes from this sentiment from Spook as an “explanation” for his crime. Though Spook is ambiguous as to whether its central character is supposed to come off as a sympathetic protagonist, I do worry about the perpetuation of certain narratives in the film.But ultimately, I found Spook, even in its violence, to be compelling, well-done, and sharp. Perhaps its strength lies in its resistance to ease and comfort, in its place critique and challenge. It was difficult for me to believe that a Black man, who grew up surrounded by the effects of anti-Blackness, would place faith in this violent and anti-Black system, but that in and of itself could be Labrone’s own critique of Black neoliberals. At the film’s conclusion, after Spook’s execution, the screen was black for a long time. I stayed there, along with the blackened screen, deep in contemplation about what I had just witnessed. Spook is a whirlwind hour of complex and uncomfortable narratives around race in America, but it will leave you plenty of time to reflect.