Early in August Jess Solomon, the USDAC’s Chief Weaver of Social Fabric, took part in the National Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation sponsored by Pangea World Theater (whose Executive Director, Meena Natarajan, serves on the USDAC National Cabinet as Radical Equity Catalyst). Jess interviewed Kathy Randels, Artistic Director of ArtSpot Productions in New Orleans, Louisiana. ArtSpot Productions is an ensemble of artists practicing social justice and shared power and striving to incite positive changewith visually stunning performances and empowering educational programs.
Jess Solomon: Kathy, we are approaching the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But I don’t feel like “anniversary” is the right word—is there another word?
Kathy Randels: Commemoration? It’s still not right, but commemoration comes closest.
Jess: Yes. As part of the commemoration of Hurricane Katrina, what has the role of art and culture been in collective healing and storytelling? How can Citizen Artists support that?
Kathy: ArtSpot is celebrating twenty years right now and we’re doing “rememberings” of all of the past performances that we’ve created. And we’re doing one on Saturday, August 22nd, a site-specific piece which was called Lower 9 Stories, in its original location on the levee where the Mississippi River meets the Industrial Canal. We did it in 1998 for Junebug’s Environmental Justice Festival.
[Note: this was the culminating event in a multi-year community development project led by Junebug Productions, teaming resident and touring artists with New Orleans-area activist groups to explore environmental racism and environmental justice issues. Community partners included the Gulf Coast Tenants Association, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, New Orleans Youth Action Corp., Christian Unity Baptist Church, and Chakula Cha Jua Theater Company.)
Jess: Tell me about Lower 9 Stories. How did that evolve?
Kathy: I was working with a group of high school students in the Lower 9th Ward. The work was initially funded through Planned Parenthood. It was using Boal work [Note: Augusto Boal originated the practice of Forum Theatre] and different theater techniques to engage the students at Lawless high school in talking about sexual health issues and general health issues—letting the students know there was a school-based health clinic, that there’s resources here for you. They wanted to have students be the presenters of that. We were doing that, and I was hearing about the Environmental Justice Festival from John O’Neal. While working in the Lower 9th Ward there was this kind of understood but not wildly publicized conversation about how the levees had been busted in 1965 in Hurricane Betsy. And every single person who lived in the Lower 9th Ward believed that the levees were busted. “Back in Betsy when it busted the levees and it flooded here and it was awful and people died. And the stench.”
It was very similar to Katrina, which is why especially in the Lower 9th Ward there was an element of “Holy shit! We’ve been here before.” It’s highly possible, but I think that it’s the neglect issue that is maybe more realistic. The neglect issue is still criminal from my perspective. It’s still racism from the federal government, anti-South-ism—it’s multiple things.
Jess: From the Environmental Justice Festival in ’98 until now, how has ArtSpot creatively responded to natural disaster in New Orleans? Is there support and resources for this kind of work?
Kathy: We were really engaged in Cry You One with Mondo Bizarro. It was so successful and a lot of support came in for this specific work. Foundations came to New Orleans and were like, “Oh my God, what can we do?”
Jess: That’s powerful. How would you describe Cry You One?
Kathy: I would call it a site-specific performance journey. It’s a bit of a ritual, a community ceremony, but it’s definitely a theater piece too. It’s an eco-tour. We start the first half of the piece as tour guides taking the people on a journey, talking about southeast Louisiana. Halfway through, we take them to a dream world through a griot—a storyteller—and then it becomes even more metaphorical, more performative, more abstracted. It’s an adventure. That’s the performance part of it, the part that I directed.
There are other places that want to engage us with this work and these stories. We have a concert version. With Jayeesha [USDAC Cultural Agent Jayeesha Dutta] through her work with the Gulf Future Coalition we did salons in all five Gulf states. We used scenes and songs and the story circle process as part of these daylong Saturday salons she was organizing in the five states. There’s also a great website that shares a bunch of stories; that’s the part that Mondo Bizarro really administered.
Jess: Thank you for sharing about your work!