Note: An earlier version of this post appeared at mobtownblues.com in June 2013.
Last June’s production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by Baltimore Performance Kitchen used a centuries-old story to explore very contemporary social issues. In presenting the Bard’s venerable tale (itself based on an earlier Italian novella) of feuding families and ill-fated lovers, director J. Buck Jabaily’s site-specific play exposed fault lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and generation relevant to today’s Baltimore. [Full disclosure: I was a member of the cast.]
For the play’s setting, Jabaily chose Area 405, a multi-use arts space on the site of a former brewery and fan factory in Greenmount West, one of the neighborhoods that comprise what is now called the Station North Arts & Entertainment District. The building’s transition, from an anchor of the local industrial economy a century ago, to a cultural venue in what is currently an economically distressed area, allowed Jabaily to allude to the tensions that occasionally spring up between Baltimore’s emerging arts community and longstanding residents of the Station North neighborhoods.
In BPK’s retelling, the Capulets represented Baltimore of 1913: staid, conservative, wealthy, and white. The Montagues, by contrast, reflected contemporary Station North residents: younger, less affluent, less formal, more diverse. These distinctions were manifest in the casting of the titular lovers. Juliet was played by Annie Unger, a blonde, hazel-eyed teen just out of high school, while Romeo was played — as a woman — by Michelle Antoinette “LOVE the Poet” Nelson, an African-American spoken-word artist in her early thirties.
The venue and casting decisions had a profound impact on the interpretation of the play. Without altering Shakespeare’s text (beyond trimming passages for time and changing the gender pronouns that refer to Romeo), Jabaily crafted a production that touched on themes of racism, sexual orientation, gentrification, and cross-generational friction.
For example, the contempt and outrage that Tybalt (Paul Diem) displays toward Romeo took on topical undertones, given the latter’s interracial, intergenerational, same-sex romance with Juliet. Similarly the street brawls that result in the deaths of Tybalt, Mercutio (Aldo Pantoja), and Paris (Richard Goldberg) were sobering echoes of the violence that continues to plague Baltimore. The production even shed new light on the source of the feud between the two families, which is unexplained in Shakespeare’s text. Since the Capulets and the Montagues represent different periods in the city’s history, their conflict can be attributed to an existential clash of epochs and cultures: the struggle between “old” Baltimore and “new” Baltimore to occupy the same place at the same time.
Just as those boundaries of time and space were peeled back in this rendition, the walls between actors and audience were similarly malleable. The play sbegan in an alley, then moved out onto Oliver Street for Mercutio’s ‘Queen Mab’ speech, before finally proceeding into the Area 405 courtyard for the masquerade ball and the ensuing chain of unfortunate events. The chairs were shuffled and reconfigured according to the demands of different scenes. At times, the audience found themselves leaning in to catch the dialogue above the ambient urban noises of train whistles, police helicopters, bass-heavy car stereos, and talkative pedestrians. Jabaily even reserved a handful of roles — Romeo’s ex-girlfriend Rosaline, Lady Montague, and the fateful apothecary — for adventurous audience members who felt inspired to become part of the show.
In keeping with BPK’s ethos of inclusiveness and reducing boundaries among Baltimore artists and audiences, tickets to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ were free. In the weeks leading up to the show’s opening, Jabaily reached out to members of the Greenmount West community and encouraged neighbors to drop in and check out the play. Each performance began with brief presentations by cast members about the history of Station North and the background of the play.
The result was a Romeo and Juliet that was as far removed from the Shakespeare of floppy hats and flowery accents as Station North is from 16th-century Verona. Like Baltimore itself, Jabaily’s production was earthy, unpretentious, and diverse, by turns absurdly funny and shockingly violent.
The closing scene carried a particularly potent lesson for those of us who love this city. Though the lovers’ suicide marks the climax of the piece, the final action in the play is the reconciliation between the Capulets and the Montagues. Through poetry written centuries ago, Shakespeare reminds us that hope awaits us even on the far side of tragedy, and that we can overcome the bitterest of lines that divide us, so long as we are willing to reach across them and clasp each other’s hands.
Close to 100 people packed the Cork Gallery on a sweltering June afternoon for the release of a remarkable book of photographs and stories about Baltimore women who have transformed their lives.
Through prose vignettes and portraits by local photographer Marshall Clarke, 30 Women, 30 Stories: Journeys of Recovery and Transformation profiles alumnae of the nonprofit housing program Marian House, which marks its third decade of operations this year.
Since opening its doors to 16 women on April 12, 1982, Marian House has helped over 1,000 women tread the difficult path from hardship to recovery. The organization plans to use the book and related media to raise awareness and spark conversation about issues of addiction, incarceration, homelessness, mental illness, and trauma.
Marian House executive director Katie Allston engaged artist Peter Bruun to spearhead the book project, which was funded by grants from from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, the TKF Foundation, and the David and Barbara B. Hirschhorn Foundation. Bruun worked with Marian House staff, clients, and alumnae to tell the women’s stories using a wide range of media and disciplines.
The June 21 release event offered an impressively rich and well-integrated multimedia experience. Photographs of each woman profiled in the book adorned the walls, paired with quotes and QR codes leading to the Marian House website, where attendees could listen to recordings of the women telling their stories in their own voices. Guests also had the option of taking a cell phone tour of the exhibit.
On one wall of the gallery hung a quilt created by four Marian House residents and a local textile artist. On another, a resident-created painting inspired by the book project shared space with portraits of the women taken by local photographer Marshall Clarke. A DVD and forthcoming touring exhibition of Clarke’s photographs are aimed at introducing Marian House to a wider audience, including policymakers and advocates.
Bruun explains that the collaborative, multi-dimensional nature of the project is designed to engage a diverse following.
“The notion is different contexts and different audiences are more or less accessible depending on what works for them,” he says. “Some will flip through a book, some will go to a web page, some will go to an exhibition. The goal is to use each platform as a gateway to another — though the audio was a bust at the event, it helped people be mindful of the stories existing on the website.”
Bruun hopes that the stories collected in the book act as a “springboard for conversations in neighborhoods about the value of having treatment services.”
For all the visual, audio, and online elements that comprised the exhibit, the focus of the June 21 event was the Marian House graduates and their personal journeys. Two of the women profiled in the book took the microphone to share their stories, which were emblematic of the struggles and triumphs experienced by all of Marian House’s residents and graduates.
“I think of our women each like a puzzle,” Allston told the audience quietly. “They started in this world as a whole and complete picture but their being and sense of self have been shattered into pieces long before we meet them.” Marian House, she continued, “is simply the platform upon which those pieces come back together and holes are filled.”
Read the full piece, “The Art of Tribulation and Redemption” at mobtownblues.com
Street artist JR made a wish in 2011: Join me in a worldwide photo project to show the world its true face. Now, a year after his TED Prize wish, he shows how giant posters of human faces, pasted in public, are connecting communities, making change, and turning the world inside out. You can join in at insideoutproject.net
With a camera, a dedicated wheatpasting crew and the help of whole villages and favelas, 2011 TED Prize winner JR shows the world its true face.
That term, coined over a decade ago by urban theorist Richard Florida, encompasses a wide array of architects, designers, performers, painters, writers, educators, entrepreneurs, and even scientists whom Florida cites as comprising nearly one-third of the U.S. workforce. According to Florida, these creators and innovators constitute the single biggest hope for urban economic revitalization. Inspired by Florida’s vision, cities including Baltimore created housing and development incentives to attract and retain members of the “creative class.”
A visit to Baltimore’s Station North Arts & Entertainment District on a random Friday night would seem to bear out this promise. Within the space of a few blocks, one can listen to a hip-hop duo perform at Joe Squared, catch a play at Single Carrot Theatre, attend a reading at Cyclops Books, or experience a Baltimore Rock Opera Society show at the newly restored Autograph Playhouse. These are but a few indicators of Baltimore’s surging arts scene, which has led some to claim that the city is in the midst of a cultural renaissance.
Yet underlying these signs of vibrancy are some disquieting economic figures. Timberg cites data from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bureau of Labor Statistics that reveal falling revenues and job opportunities for performing arts companies, musical groups, and individual artists, as well as architects, graphic designers, and photographers. Even as the U.S. begins to emerge from economic recession, the labor market prospects for artists and other creatives remain grim.
If Baltimore is serious about tapping the full potential of the “creative class,” the city and state need to build on the investments they have made
in the city’s cultural landscape. Official arts districts like Station North, Highlandtown, and the soon-to-be-designated Westside/downtown arts district represent one strategy for creating jobs, providing artist housing, and increasing the city’s cultural vibrancy. These are promising initiatives that should be sustained and expanded.
Creators and consumers of the arts can also play a vital role by working with groups like Maryland Citizens for the Arts to advocate for increased public funding for artists, arts, organizations, and cultural activities.
At the Art + Justice Project, we believe that arts can be a tool for positive social change. In order to help bring that change about, we need ensure that artists have the resources to produce their work and contribute to the common good.
The Baltimore Community Foundation (BCF) believes the arts are a critical component of vibrant neighborhoods and a vibrant city, and therefore intends to make grants to programs that engage neighborhood residents in making art that benefits their communities; and forge partnerships among established arts institutions, community-based arts organizations, grassroots artists, and local neighborhoods.
BCF’s Neighborhood Grants Program provides Community Arts Grants of up to $7,500 to support projects conducted in partnership by neighborhood groups, local artists, and arts organizations to increase neighborhood vibrancy.
Applicant organizations must either have 501(c)(3) nonprofit status or apply through a nonprofit fiscal agent. Examples of suitable projects include:
- An artist residency with a community organization
- An arts project as part of an organizing/advocacy campaign
- Professional development for a local artist who will use her new skills to design a neighborhood project
Applications for this first round of 2012 Community Arts Funding are due May 15, 2012. A second round of applications will be considered later in the year.
Download the application in MS Word format.
One of the most pressing questions facing the Baltimore Art + Justice Project is: what is the role of the arts in driving social change?
Artists not only document social change,” she argues, “they promote, inform, and shape it.”
Whether through music, plays, graphics, paintings, songs, films, media, architecture, textiles, jewelry, photography, poetry, sculpture, pottery, landscapes, written word, spoken word, or dance, art is powerful…For art is the intellectual underpinning of social change; nowhere is there more potential and more need for art than here and now.
Martinez asserts that while government bears the principal responsibility for ensuring that residents are healthy and safe, art plays a vital role by raising awareness, encouraging participation, and reducing the barriers of misunderstanding and mistrust that too often divide decision-makers with institutionalized political and economic power from community members who are most directly affected by social problems.
She cites several instances in which artists have helped to shape public debates in San Francisco. For example, in 1972, an Asian-American arts collective produced posters, murals, and publications to protest the eviction of older adult Filipino and Chinese residents from a low-income residential hotel.
A decade later, artist Ester Hernandez produced a satirical advertisement for “Sun Mad Raisins” in order to draw attention to the public health consequences of pesticide overuse by California’s raisin industry.
Martinez calls for a 1930’s-era, Works Progress Administration-style initiative to provide multi-year funding for community artists whose works serve the social good. This type of public investment would use “…creative capital to promote social justice, mitigate disparities, and build healthy neighborhoods.”
Baltimore has a long history of residents organizing to improve conditions in their communities. It also has an impressive, if less well known, history of local artists using their work to take on the social problems of the day.
Do you have any examples of ways in which the arts have been used to challenge the status quo, reduce disparities, or advocate for positive change? Please share your stories in the comments section or via email.