Changing through Collective Creation

Engaging with Affordable Housing: The Musical

Black man dressed in black on foreground of stage, with several people in background holding up a hand-painted sign that says "Welcome to Church Mound"

In November of 2019, Affordable Housing: The Musical premiered at CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio to a completely sold-out audience. Presented as part of a partnership between community organizations, including Chapel Hill’s Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) and Carolina Performing Arts, the weekend run of this grassroots performance reminded us that the work we do outside of our presenting season is ongoing—and important. 

Founded in 2009, CEF serves and supports Orange County residents experiencing housing insecurity. Co-founder Maggie West had recognized that members of the organization were looking for more opportunities for artistic expression, and so, over more than a year-and-a-half, she and others collaborated to create a performance that would “educate community members on issues of affordable housing and, in the process, reduce the stigma of homelessness.” 

Simultaneously, UNC music major Rachel Despard was searching for ways to use her voice to support the community. An intern for the engagement team at CPA (which works with faculty, students, and community to create connections with artists and the arts), she had also performed at CEF benefit concerts. Soon, Rachel dove into helping bring the musical to life. As production got underway, she offered her experience in mixing and mastering audio to create an official soundtrack for all streaming platforms, which was released in May 2020.     

Through her work with both CPA and CEF, Rachel forged connections that led her to a new understanding of the role of performance in daily life. This experience carried into her academics, as well. In her senior year, she authored (and successfully defended!) an honors thesis that presented a “study of socially engaged art-making and micro-activism in Chapel Hill in 2019 and 2020,” based on her intersecting experiences of collaborating with CEF and CPA, and her study of “existing scholarship on artistic advocacy and ethnomusicological activism, inform[ing] my argument for the significance of micro-activism and socially engaged art making.” 

Finding new pathways for pedagogy and participation is at the core of CPA’s engagement work, and the work extends long after the curtain falls on a performance. From Rachel’s thesis: 

“When you sing a song for an audience, you can immediately witness their reaction and feel a connection. Within the strong relationships that are built through music, participants in collective creation can see others change over the course of a musical project or collaboration. This was the kind of impact I was searching for, and one I witnessed through Affordable Housing: The Musical.” 

When Rachel came to UNC, she didn’t know how her passions of music, advocacy, and academia would evolve and mesh as they have done. And for CPA, getting to encourage and help make these connections for students and community members is an integral part of the “backstage” work we do.

Ellie Pate is an artistic coordinator at Carolina Performing Art, working both in artist services and in engagement. 

CEF serves and supports Orange County residents experiencing housing insecurity, and its work is just as urgent as ever: in the face of COVID-19, members without housing are some of the most vulnerable to the virus, and those with housing face financial uncertainty from economic turmoil. If you are able, you can support this crucial work by donating directly to Community Empowerment Fund or The Marian Cheek Jackson Center, or by donating a dinner through Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe (contact Vimala’s for more information).

A Reflection on This Moment

It is hard to know where to begin, at such a moment of grief and outrage against the horrific violence perpetrated against George Floyd and so many others—a moment that is not momentary at all, but lifelong. Carolina Performing Arts has its home on a campus that has a full-throated history of racist ideology and action against Black people, in a region with the same, in a country with the same still. Our collective situation has been dire for some time, but perhaps we, wrongly, did not see it for what it was: an urgent call-to-action. Being able to even make this mistake or benefit from this blindness is itself a privilege.

We have work to do.

Many of us at CPA are drawn to work in the arts because we see it as a voice for the people—artists are activists, and they have been compelled throughout history to speak the truth, to make plain what we can’t or won’t, to expose the ugliness that so often simmers barely beneath the surface. To support such art, therefore, is to acknowledge the sacred right to make one’s voice heard against injustice, whether it occurs on the stage or in the streets. As such, the violent militarization of law enforcement against protesters in the United States is despicable.

To look across the spectrum of performance art is to see plainly who has been excluded from the canon throughout time. Often, when we invite artists to CPA, their performances take place in a venue that is itself a memorial to the wrong side of history. As a performing arts presenter on a university campus, our mission states that we strive to create arts experiences that encourage lifelong learning. In CPA’s history, our staff has taken pride in the multifaceted work we have supported that seeks to address the ills in our society, but we must go a step—many steps—further.

As others have said: it is the time to be vociferously, actively anti-racist. Part of that means listening more than speaking: to our BIPOC staff, community, artists, and colleagues. We will engage our staff in anti-racism trainings, and ask ourselves, and others, difficult questions. We will not shy away from the answers.

We will remain committed to presenting, commissioning, and curating art by people of color. We recognize that the premise that we must make such a commitment is itself faulty, and will work to correct it within our organization and with our peers. We urge our staff and audience to disrupt the structures of white supremacy, systemic violence against Black people, and oppression, and for those with privilege to use it in service to our fellow humans.

This is a humble start, certainly. In recent days, many of us have seen these words of Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Carolina Performing Arts stands in solidarity with the Black community, and we are committed to doing our part to dismantle the deeply embedded systems of racism and oppression on our campus, in our towns, and in our country.

For anyone looking to take action by supporting local organizations, we encourage you to support the NC Community Bail Fund of Durham, Take Action Chapel Hill, Community Empowerment Fund, the Marian Cheek Jackson Center, Spirit House, NorthStar Church of the Arts, Hayti Heritage Center, Culture Mill, Orange County Justice United, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s own Campus Y. You can also find anti-racism resources provided by the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion at this link.

We stand with you.


To be (read), or not to be (read): CPA’s associate director of marketing and communications on her book pile

It’s safe to say we’ve all got a little extra time on our hands in these strange new days. To make sure I’m not simply going from my computer screen to the TV screen, I’m getting outside for walks and making a real dent in my to-be-read pile (don’t worry: it’s still pretty big). Here are some books I’ve recently loved—I realize none of them are performing arts-related, but as Rory Gilmore once said, “my interests are teasingly diverse.”

Author Christina Rodriguez sits on the steps of a museum with pink and purple light from an installation bouncing around her.

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl

I started reading Ruth Reichl’s food memoirs when I was in high school and it was a treat to live inside her brightly painted world again as she recalls the final years of Gourmet magazine. Plus: the title references the famous and wonderful William Carlos Williams poem.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Despite being a little embarrassed to admit, as a former book editor, that I had never picked up one of Whitehead’s books before, I tore through this novel in 24 hours. What a beautiful and heartbreaking work of fiction about one of the darkest times in this country’s history.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

This novel by a retired wildlife biologist was a sleeper hit. Blockbuster or no, it is a gorgeously rendered mystery wrapped up in a bildungsroman—and it is set right in North Carolina. At a moment when most of us probably aren’t getting enough time in nature, Owens’s writing will make you feel like you’re out motoring around in protagonist Kya’s little boat in the wilds of our state.

Indian-ish by Priya Krishna

You might know Priya, as I do, from Bon Appetit’s videos or magazine. In this unique cookbook, she breaks down her Indian-American family’s style of cooking in a really fun and approachable way. Plus, perhaps you, like me, have loads of dried beans and legumes lying around and don’t know what to do with them. May I suggest Priya’s Lemony Lentils and Rice for your supper?

Going HOME with Geoff Sobelle

They say you can’t go home again. But it turns out you can, if it’s a home that theater maker Geoff Sobelle built.

I recently plane-train-automobiled it (ok, I actually walked from the train station to my hotel and the theater) to see HOME at the Arts & Ideas Festival in New Haven, CT, so I could see for myself the magic behind this performance that CPA has been trying to bring to Chapel Hill for a couple of seasons now. The stars have aligned, and it will grace the Memorial Hall stage for two nights in March 2020.

A man walks up the stairs of a full set on stage during a play.

HOME has been described as “spellbinding” (even in our own marketing copy!) and that’s true. I’ll add more words to that one adjective: wit-filled, familiar, nostalgic, uplifting and heartbreaking all at once. Filled with characters but void of dialogue, this piece of theater evokes many emotions, as a house comes together onstage with inhabitants from many different periods in the home’s history existing alongside one another. They do so quite deftly thanks to the sharp, witty choreography of David Neumann, whom you might remember from I Understand Everything Better in CPA’s 18/19 season.

I watched, sometimes through tear-filled eyes, as my fellow audience members laughed, gasped, and murmured recognition at what unfolded before us. We even got involved—at one point making a sort of bucket brigade to hang party lights above the house (this time I’m referring to the audience section) in the theater. When we succeeded, everyone cheered, together.

Without spoiling everything that happens in this 90 minutes of theater, suffice it to say that HOME recalls what it’s like to love a home, leave a home, and love IN a home. When the lights came up, I didn’t want the spell to be broken. Luckily for me: I get to see it again next March.

Christina Rodriguez
CPA Associate Director of Marketing and Communications

You Are a Maker

“I’m not creative.”

Chances are you’ve heard someone say this before. Maybe you’ve even uttered those words yourself. But creativity means many different things, and it can strike anyone, anywhere. Maybe inspiration struck you standing in front of the pantry wondering how to get dinner on the table tonight. Or in a moment of sudden insight you think of the perfect words to explain a concept in a new way, one that unlocks your child’s understanding of today’s homework. Or maybe, through your work with a local nonprofit, you find needs that aren’t being addressed and help create a solution.

Is it strange for a performing arts organization to be talking about creativity this way? Maybe—but that’s the point. We want to take down some of the walls around who gets to be creative and who doesn’t: creativity and ideas don’t belong only to those on a stage or in a studio. Individuals and communities create all the time. Maybe the idea just needs a little reframing.

A crowd of children celebrate in their homemade robot costumes

You might already know about our 2018/19 theme, You Are Everything, and that we’ll be exploring facets of community life throughout the year. One such facet is the idea of co-creation, aimed at revealing the many ways any person can take part in creativity.

In September, we invite you to visit the Plastic Bag Store in the Studio at CURRENT. It’s almost an ordinary convenience store: except everything in it is made of discarded plastic—much of it collected right here in the Triangle. These items tell an imaginative, funny, and relevant story about our dependence on plastic and its effects. And you can return for evening performances and see the installation through the eyes of live performers and puppets telling their own tales.

At their performance in February, the music collective wild Up will be inviting audience members to join them in marching, chanting, and even singing, until it becomes impossible to distinguish visiting artist from ticketholder. In the week following, they’ll work with local community members and students to create a new piece of music that will be debuted at a second performance at their residency’s end.

And at the end of our season, we’ll celebrate everything that’s happened in 2018/19 with DJ Kid Koala. At Satellite, he’ll make amateur DJs out of everyone in the audience, leading them with lighting cues to play their own turntables. Then, at his Robot Dance Party, kids of all ages are invited to make robot costumes out of cardboard boxes and other flair and then take to the dance floor to shake it only as a tiny robot can.

These artists all offer wildly different experiences with one important thing in common: no part of what they’ll do here in Chapel Hill could be done without you. We hope you’ll join us for one or all of their visits. In the meantime, we invite you to tell us a little something about yourself for our #YouAreEverythingatCPA project. Maybe now, yours could say, “I am…creative.”

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