FIRST LOOK: “Spirit House” Gives Voice to Speechless

Artistic Director Andrew Vaught
Artistic Director Andrew Vaught

In Cripple Creek, we pride ourselves on the stories that we tell. Not just the what, but the why. We tell stories about individuals in positions of duress; people who are confronted with obstacles and antagonists bigger, richer, and more established then they are. Our stories explore the consequences of when individuals choose to fight against these larger powers. April 19th, we will continue that tradition, and we will continue it with new friends.

In December 2012, Cripple Creek began a collaboration with the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) as an artistic extension of their program entitled “Bringing Gender Home.” GNOFHAC works tirelessly to bring awareness and initiative to the residents of New Orleans, a city where discrimination is a frightening present as opposed to a painful past. This collaboration offers Cripple Creek the chance to engage our community with an immediate, relevant dramatic work, and to employ performance to provide our community with a platform for constructive dialogue, transformative reflection, and positive social change. That opportunity happens on April 19. It is called “Spirit House.”

RSVP: “Spirit House” Reading April 19th at Dryades Theater

In December 2012, company members Francesca McKenzie and Selena Poznak led a workshop with community members with the goal of defining what home means to them. The workshop featured singing and movement, and saw individuals from both the theater world and the New Orleans community-at-large share images, words, and physicalities that gave different perspectives on a very large subject. This was only one of several workshops sponsored by GNOFHAC in order to merge first-person narrative with the laws and standards of housing in modern America, and these workshops provided the groundwork for what has become “Spirit House.” The information had been compiled, and now GNOFHAC sought someone who could synthesize it into a narrative.

That’s when we met Dr. G.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have collaborated with Dr. G on this project. She is a champion of the underdog, and mixes progressive politics with traditional philosophy. She is a healer and an activist; she is the type of citizen New Orleans needs. Our conversations started with history… we discussed the history of displacement in this country. The situations and issues that GNOFHAC deals with today are not new. They began when the first pair of leather boots touched the sand of this nation. The history of inequality began early in this country. But so did a history of rebellion. Individuals defying the odds and defending a fast disappearing culture or territory is as ingrained in this country as what they fought against. This is an old and expansive story. So expansive that it could not be contained in a traditional narrative.

We spoke about the Federal Theatre. The time when things in this country got so bad, they actually had to start paying actors. In that brief period of nationalized drama a wholly unique form called the Living Newspaper emerged. The Living Newspaper used headlines of the present day, simple stories, and visual effects not only to entertain its audience, but also to inform them of the current state of their country. The Living Newspaper served as our clearest model for the project both in form and precedent, but sources from all over flooded into the piece. The chore poem became a valued tool. The pageantry of our own city coursed through the work. And most of all, our country’s attachment to land; a clear struggle for territory and property that sparked the many conflicts of race and class which are screaming and flailing today. It was shaping up to be a truly unique and rewarding experience. But to quote Dr G. quoting someone else, “plays are not written they are re-written.” The rewriting was going to be hard.

WATCH: Vintage newsreel footage of the Federal Theatre Project

Dr G and Lakeesha in "Spirit House" rehearsal

Dr. G, faced with a play quickly beginning to encompass the entire history of the United States, brought in her friend and business partner Lakeesha Harris. Lakeesha brought to the table an understanding of family and its importance, specifically in times of duress that was both deeply personal and broadly applicable. With Lakeesha’s influence, the focus of the play began to take shape. I watched as these playwrights shifted between zeroing in close and blowing the doors wide open. Interweaving the plight of many of our citizens today and the history of disenfranchisement that characterizes so many of the chapters of our history. GNOFHAC’s research and education showed us how policies looked upon favorably today, like the G.I. Bill and the Urban Renewal Program, only served the interests of some, and excluded African Americans at a criminal rate. What GNOFHAC illustrated, and what Dr. G and Lakeesha have shown in this work, is that a system of governance and regulation has been in effect for generations that keeps the same people without property, without influence, and ultimately, without freedom.

“Spirit House” seeks to address this and show that pockets of resistance exist even now.

The greatest hurdle to creating the type of society we wish to see is an understanding and acceptance of the history of our country. As citizens of the United States, we are responsible for what our country does. We are responsible for its triumphs and tragedies. We are responsible for the discrimination and inequity we see around us, and we are responsible for changing it.

I would ask everyone reading this to join us on April 19th. “Spirit House” welcomes everyone willing to sit at the kitchen table that will listen, learn and act.

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