The Reclamation Project holds space to heal past harm in theater

In a residence at Kennedy Center, the group takes a unique approach to centering and empowering marginalized artists.

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.

Tẹmídayọ Amay and Sam Sherman performing excerpts from an exercise about honoring the work of service. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation Project.

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.

Billie Krishawn stands in front of the group presenting her project proposal. Kara-Tamieka Watkins in the foreground. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation Project.

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 top of each day, the full company sits together, taking time to land in the space, discuss discoveries from the day before, and do research for the days ahead. Kara-Tameika Watkins, Larry Lewis, Billie Krishawn, Sam Sherman, Temidayo Amay, Renea Brown, P. Vanessa Losada, and Christopher Michael Richardson. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation 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?

Participants circle up to participate in a devising exercise. Clockwise from left to right: Larry Lewis, Florence Babatunde, P. Vanessa Losada, Renea Brown, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and Sam Sherman. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation Project.

“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.

Participants lie on the floor as Dylan Arredondo (center) leads them through a devising exercise. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation Project.

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.

Participants circle up to participate in a devising exercise. Clockwise from left to right: Larry Lewis, Florence Babatunde, P. Vanessa Losada, Renea Brown, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and Sam Sherman. Photo courtesy of The Reclamation Project.

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.

SEE ALSO: CulturalDC to host Reclamation Project racial-equity residency at Source Theatre

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