The 9th Annual Life is Living Festival in West Oakland celebrated the 50-year legacy of the Black Panther Party, who used arts and culture paired with organized activism to fuel social change. Cal Shakes, Youth Speaks, and Campo Santo honored this legacy on the festival’s second annual theater stage, where we co-curated a day of locally-produced art addressing the theme “A Claim to Space: Building and Sustaining Home in an Age of Displacement.” In a time when one in four Oaklanders is at risk for displacement, how can art be used to “serve the people, body and soul,” in the tradition of the Panthers’ free breakfast program?
Our line-up offered a range of answers:
Campo Santo’s “H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually),” a new work from Star Finch, explored connection, family, survival, and womanhood in a future where states are being auctioned off to the highest bidder and Google and Apple have extended their empire into space.
“Fairytale,” written by the youth of Cal Shakes’ community partner RYSE Center, challenged audiences to cultivate self-love and communal healing in its moving critique of gender stereotypes, teen dating violence, and rape culture, told through music, poetry, and dance.
The BoomShake Performance Core pounded drums and spoke the names of black women lost to police violence in “The Streets Are Free,” a participatory, intergenerational “drumsical” about conditions faced by Oakland’s low-income communities of color and inspired by a true story of Venezuelan children fighting for a safe place to play outside in their barrio.
In “On the Hill,” directed by Cal Shakes 2014-2015 Artist-Investigator Paul Flores, youth of color living in gentrifying neighborhoods in San Francisco responded to the murder of Alex Nieto by SFPD and implored their neighbors to see beyond stereotypes.
“Don’t Take The Long Way Home” followed a taxi driver telling tales through a changing San Francisco, performed with text and music by Carlos Aguirre.
The Rysing Womyn project, facilitated by Cal Shakes 2015-2016 Artist-Investigators Cat Brooks and Anna Maria Luera, shared monologues and poetry about breaking through chains of societal oppression with “In Shallow Waters We Touch the Sky.”
“Mama at Twilight: Death by Love,” a new work from Cal Shakes 2014-2015 Artist-Investigator Dr. Ayodele Nzinga and the Lower Bottom Playaz, examined love within a family impacted by mass incarceration, religious taboos, and poor access to health care.
Through community interviews, original music, and physical exploration―and a deep dive into Oakland’s past―The Bonfire Makers (featuring Cal Shakes Artistic Engagement Coordinator Tierra Allen) imagined what the future of Oakland could look like if we disrupt current cycles of oppression with “PLACE to LAND (an oakland love story).”
Last year, as part of our effort to foster deep artist/community collaborations, Cal Shakes supported four Community Network Projects: work already being created outside our doors by local community-based artists and cultural workers. We wanted to discover, in what specific, discrete ways could we, as a regional arts institution, add to these projects to broaden capacity and deepen impact?
Dr. Ayodele Nzinga/The Lower Bottom Playaz, Red Beans, Rice, Honey Buttermilk Cornbread, & Discussions about Race
The Lower Bottom Playaz held performance/fundraisers exploring race, place, and belonging called Red Beans, Rice, Honey Buttermilk Cornbread, & Discussions About Race. Talkbacks after the events offered the audience, guest speakers, writers, artists, and community-based organizations space for candid discussion about race, gentrification, incarceration, and more, and for finding common ground for building intentional community.
To support the production of two readings in the series, which featured Dr. Nzinga’s Artist-Investigator project Beyond the Bars: Growing Home, developed with men recently released from San Quentin State Prison, Cal Shakes aided with performer stipends, venue costs, and our stock of chairs and music stands. The series was filmed to inform a larger work about race & place in North America.
NAKA Dance Theater, The Anastasio Project
Created by former Cal Shakes Artist-Investigators Jose Navarrete and Debby Kajiyama of NAKA Dance Theater, in collaboration with Susanne Takehara/EastSide Arts Alliance, The Anastasio Project is a multidisciplinary public performance work that investigates racial profiling and state brutality in the streets of Oakland and at the US-Mexico border. The piece uses the story of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, a Mexican national murdered by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents in 2010, as its point of departure.
Cal Shakes first supported The Anastasio Project in 2013 with funds to create a roving, tricycle-mounted video projector that allowed the performance to move through the streets outside EastSide Arts Alliance. For the 2015 remount, Cal Shakes supported with funds for an outreach coordinator, who increased access to the work, including three supplementary dialogues on police brutality, among folks in the surrounding neighborhood.
RYSE Center, Bag Ladies’ Butterfly Blues: A Multimedia Production by Richmond Youth
Young people in the RYSE Center’s Media, Arts, and Culture program weaved together poetry, theater, film, dance, and music to create Bag Ladies’ Butterfly Blues: RYSE’s first-ever theatrical production following 16-year-old emcee Natia as she learns about life, love, and womanhood from neighbors in her apartment building. The production created a safe space for Richmond youth to share their stories, pain, joy, and dreams; explore gender roles that can confine women and men of color; and envision a future where relationships are rooted in respect and healthy communication.
Cal Shakes supported RYSE with educational workshops from professional visiting artists Margo Hall, Dan Wolfe, and Rebecca Novick, who worked with youth on acting technique, crafting monologues from community interviews, and more, and by helping stipend the production’s director/dramaturg. The play had tremendous community impact: the youth artists reported feeling like “family” after the often emotional process of creating and rehearsing the piece, and almost all audience members rated it a 5/5 on post-performance surveys, writing that it was a healing experience.
BAY-Peace, Peer-Led Arts-Based Resistance for Formerly and Currently Incarcerated Youth
BAY-Peace supports and empowers Bay Area youth to confront violence through youth organizing and artistic resistance, cultivating creativity, critical thinking, and understanding among working-class students of color. Their model is to train young people to lead workshops to teach other young people tools and information to resist militarism, racial profiling, police brutality, gentrification, and other structural violence.
To support an expansion of their intergenerational leadership model of arts-based youth organizing, Cal Shakes provided funds to pay a BAY-Peace youth to co-facilitate Theater of the Oppressed classes alongside organizer Tatiana Chaterji in the juvenile detention facility at Camp Wilmont Sweeney in San Leandro. (In addition to training youth with BAY-Peace, Chaterji worked as a performing artist and facilitator with the Cal Shakes-backed project Love Balm for My SpiritChild, a testimonial theater process honoring women who have lost children to violence, and more recently as the moderator for our Actualizing Women’s Empowerment Civic Dialogue.)
Unfortunately, BAY-Peace’s youth arts facilitator faced obstacles in gaining clearance to work within the detention center, and the program inside Camp Sweeney went forward with a single adult facilitator. Cal Shakes’ funding then shifted to supporting intergenerational arts-based leadership outside of Camp Sweeney, by providing stipends and meals to support the youth taking BAY-Peace classes within the facility to participate in a peer-led workshop upon their release. The series, which served formerly incarcerated youth, culminated in a performance at EastSide Arts Alliance as part of BAY-Peace’s Oakland’s Geography of Resistance, which mapped different ways young people resist institutional violence through the arts, with a focus on criminalization, incarceration, and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Cal Shakes’ 2014-2015 Artist-Investigator projects. Top left: Dr. Ayodele Nzinga/Green Life. Top right: Paul Flores/Causa Justa::Just Cause. Bottom left: Krista DeNio/Berkeley Food & Housing Project. Bottom right: Elizabeth Gjelten/DISH.
With our 2014-2015 Artist-Investigator program, Cal Shakes paired four local artists with four community-based nonprofits to learn what can happen when the powerful skills of artists are deployed outside the rehearsal room.
We asked artists to lead our investigation into what the performances of the future might look like and what can happen when the arts are more deeply integrated into community life. The result: four projects engaging 75 clients/members in participatory art-making that furthered each nonprofit’s mission. Beyond the participants, these projects engaged 646 community members in 3 Bay Area cities.
Each Artist-Investigator project featured different methods and outcomes depending on the needs and desires of the participants. Playwright and poet Paul Flores worked with Causa Justa::Just Cause, which organizes low-income tenants around housing justice, to create a performance based on members’ experiences with eviction and other struggles. The piece was performed at Causa Justa::Just Cause’s annual gala.
Storyteller and playwright Dr. Ayodele Nzinga worked with Green Life, a re-entry project led by former prisoners that provides healing circles and job training for formerly incarcerated individuals. Through story circles with men recently released from San Quentin State Prison, she developed Beyond the Bars: Growing Home, which presented the men’s stories of heartbreak and healing around the topic of “home.” A free staged reading of the project was produced at United Roots Oakland in collaboration with the youth group DetermiNation and The Lower Bottom Playaz theater troupe.
Playwright Elizabeth Gjelten led portrait-and-writing sessions with residents of DISH (Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing), which operates six facilities housing formerly homeless individuals who also have other physical or mental challenges. The project resulted in photographs incorporating residents’ writing on what home means to them—and this portrait series now enlivens the lobbies of DISH’s SROs in San Francisco.
Choreographer and theatermaker Krista DeNio collaborated with the resident chaplain at Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which works to ease and end the crisis of homelessness in our community. They worked for nine months with male veterans in BFHP’s transitional housing project, exploring how performance work can help heal moral injury: traumatic grief over the moral transgressions inherent in war. Together they created a performance ritual performed by the veterans at BFHP’s annual Client Success event.
Cal Shakes is continuing our Artist-Investigator project this year as well, partnering with AYPAL, Transgender Health Services, and the Rysing Womyn project to learn more about how theaters, artists, and communities can work together to ignite change. We believe that through deep collaboration, artists and community members can lift up each other’s work—starting conversation, sharing stories, bridging difference, and activating deeper civic participation.
Last month we launched a new round of our Artist-Investigator program, in which four distinguished artists partnered with four non-profit organizations to see how theater artists can help meet community needs. (Read more about the artists and their partners here.) We’ll be sharing regular “lab reports” on the progress of these experiments, as we find out what happens when the powerful skills of artists are deployed outside the rehearsal room.
Our early meetings have unearthed some exciting possibilities, like the conversation we had with the chaplain at Berkeley Food and Housing Project about creating theater-based rituals to help homeless vets struggling with “moral injury.” Or the proposal from Causa Justa::Just Cause—that their artist Paul Flores work with their clients to help them tell their compelling stories to decision-makers like government officials and funders.
Earlier this week, all of the artists and their partners came together for a day-long training with the dynamic Michael Rohd, whose Center for Performance and Civic Practice has pioneered a lot of the methodology we’re using. He asked everyone to name assets that artists bring to the partnerships—not just in the “product” we might create, but in how artistic skills influences the process of the collaboration. Here is a portion of the inspiring list the artists generated:
What we bring to the table as artists:
my writer self
ability to collaborate
understanding when communication has not occurred
basing work in the body
making things happen, moving a process from A to B
seeing when things are stuck
seeing from multiple points of view
getting people to tell their story
using humor as a tool
articulating something for collective interrogation
fearlessly naming the elephant in the room
asking good questions at the right time
surfacing emotional undercurrents
making space for transgression
As exciting as artistic collaboration is, we’ve had to remind ourselves to hold off and be mindful of moving too fast. Our process asks artists and organizations to work off each other; but, speedy implementation is not always fruitful. As Dr. Ayodele Nzinga shared, “I always have a map, but I’m learning to make space for the emergent.”