Fire in the Belly: Black Arts in Baltimore with Rosiland Cauthen

Artist and educator Rosiland Cauthen of the Kuumba Collective in Baltimore, MD talks about her work, the politics of art, and the continuing impact of the Black Arts Movement

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Story Transcript

ROSALIND CAUTHEN: Greetings. My name is Rosalind Cauthen, and I’m excited to be here with I Mix What I Like.

I’ve been in Baltimore now for about 12 years. I really love it here, I love the city. I came to the area, actually, to go to Towson University, which is strange. But I came to go to Towson, and their MFA, Master of Fine Arts and Theatre program. But it wasn’t about Towson. It wasn’t about getting my master’s degree. It was about Baltimore City. I came here for a visit, and I had such a good time. There was something about the feeling of the city, the pulse of the city, the energy that was here. It was lit. I mean, it was live. I was meeting other artists who were interested in a lot of the same work that I was interested in.

I felt like the art scene here was very authentic. I didn’t want to go to, like, New York or LA or one of those type of places that are establishment-type cities for the arts. Baltimore felt right, like I could build a community here, but also keep myself busy working in the arts on a professional and community level. So after I got my grad degree I just kind of stuck around. I did some work at Morgan State university, I did some work at Towson University where I graduated, and then I started doing some work at Center Stage Theatre.

But the key thing here that really helped me [pull] my skills and prepared me to be the artist that I am today was I started a theatre company called Kuumba. And Kuumba was about–we were at Towson, and there were a group of black students, black artists, that weren’t getting seen. We weren’t getting looks, we weren’t getting any work, we were getting very few callbacks to be on the main stage productions. We were kind of, like, on the outskirts of the theatre department in Towson. And so I just kind of did a survey for a class that was to all of the African-American students, saying how do you feel about being here at Towson? Are your needs being met? Let’s talk about it.

So after the survey was over, the information I got was so great, collected some great data. And then I started meeting with those same folks, those same students who were in the department feeling marginalized, and said, you know what, let’s do our own work. Like, I have this mantra of, like, don’t sit around and wait for someone to give you an opportunity to be onstage, to do your art, to mix your music or to do your painting. Don’t wait. Make the opportunity for yourself. If it’s not being presented, you’ve got to make that opportunity.

And what’s great about Baltimore is it’s the type of city where you can do just that. Like, you don’t have to know this person to know that person and know that person, you know, I just kind of went up to Baltimore Theatre Project, and up on Preston Street, and started talking to them about producing shows there. Then I got connected through Bashi Rose and [inaud.] [wall] and some other people to Creative Alliance. And so Creative Alliance started to support a lot of my work in those early years, [along with] theatre project.

I’ve done work at the UB Blake Cultural Arts Center, at Arena Players, at Morgan and Towson, all over. So just being able to come to a city, be here for a couple years, put in the work that’s necessary, make the networks and connections that are necessary. I felt very fulfilled and supported, and that the work is really meaningful here. It feels authentic.

People call this work that we do all sorts of things. Art for social change. Art for social justice. Healing in the arts. All sorts of monikers and names that it comes other. Well, really, for me it was inspired by the work of the artists of the black arts movement. This idea of taking issues, problems, things that are plaguing our community and using the arts to further explore them, or using the arts to make statements, or using the arts to make, to ask questions, to encourage audience members and community members to ask questions about our status here in America as black people. About the oppression that we faced historically as black people. And so being able to draw upon the inspiration of those artists in the black arts movement and around that time just really kind of exploded and ignited this energy in me.

Sometimes it feels like being an artist can be, like, a little selfish. And so I’m over here, I’m doing my art. It’s beautiful. People are clapping and applauding and laughing and having a good time. And we’re doing a play. Right, even the word play. We’re dressing up, becoming characters as a play. So I started thinking, someone who’s an activist, and I’ve always been involved in political issues. Even when, you know, my time in South Carolina and North Carolina. I grew up, I lived in Charleston for several years and was very politically active there.

I wanted to find a way to combine the two sides of myself. This activist, political activist who was going down to Atlanta and participating in protests and all these sorts of things, with my artistic self. Because I know in my heart I’m an artist, and that’s what I’ve been called to do, that’s my talent. That’s what I’ve been gifted with from the most high, and from the universe. So how could I combine what I thought was really important, fighting against the oppression and the inequitites that our people were facing as black people in America, but do it through my art. And I saw how the black arts movement, they did that. And so people like Amiri Baraka, and Sonia Sanchez, and the Last Poets.

And then coming down even a little bit futher, one of my strongest influences, Ntozake Shange, who was blending–what I love most about these artists was not just that they were making a political social statement with their art, but that their art was out of the box. It was, it was different. It is different. It’s unique. It’s collaborative. It’s anti-establishment. It’s, we’re not going to produce it in the same way that we produce on Hollywood or Broadway. We’re going to be raw. You know, we’re going to find the best way to tell the stories and ask questions of our people that we need to without the grandeur and artifice of what professional theatre has become, where people are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on sets and costumes and all of this for a one-time show, or for a run of a show, and then it goes in the freaking trash can after that, to be recycled.

So this idea of being resourceful, of using the community, of using what we have, telling stories through poetry, theatre, dance, visual arts, music, now what they call multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary aesthetic, in the arts. We’ve been doing that shit. Like, we’ve been doing that. We’ve been combining the drums with dance and poetry and the Grio, and getting the community involved, and what they call audience participation. No, we do community arts. We do healing arts. It is more than just a career. It is more than just something outside of ourselves that we aspire to. The arts and the culture is within us. It’s our daily way of being. It’s our meditation. It’s our way of walking, our way of talking. It’s all art and culture from within when it comes from an African perspective.

And so yeah, I continue to be inspired by the black arts movement. We were able to do a series with the Creative Alliance called Fire In the Belly, and I would say that was one of the highlights of my career so far to this point. By producing Fire In the Belly, myself along with Bashi Rose, we were able to bring in some of the top national known artists in the black arts movement. So we brought in Amiri Baraka, and we brought in Sonia Sanchez, and we brought in the Last Poets.

And we had three different nights. The first night was Amiri Baraka, he was there. We did Slave Ship. And to be able to do the play, his seminal work, Slave Ship, for him while he’s sitting in the front row, where we could reach out and touch him, was amazing. And the brother was real down to earth. Like, he sat with us before the show, and had pizza and beer, and talked to us about just everything that he had been doing with the Spirit House Players, and everything that he had been doing in Newark, New Jersey. It was just like, it was surreal, sitting with Amiri Baraka. Then we did the show, and then he performed. He performed a couple of his pieces, Somebody Blew Up America. I mean, in the place you could hear a pin drop. You could hear a pin drop when our great ancestor was up on that stage, reading his poetry, engaging and connecting with the people. So I’ll never forget that.

Then the second night we had the Last Poets. We had lots of drummers in the building, we had some local hip-hop artists, some local spoken-word artists. And that exchange between the old and the new, right, the older generation of poets and their way of working and being, and the new generation of poets and Grios, and their way of working and being, and seeing them share together, it was just, it was so much inspiration and energy in the room that night when the Last Poets was there. It just felt like that whole room at the Creative Alliance could just, like, lift off the ground and just take off.

And then finally we ended with Sonia Sanchez. And we had an original play that had been written by the brothers at the Correctional Institute in Jessup. And then we took that play and put it on actors who were based here in Baltimore, and it was just, it was so powerful. At the time I do believe our great leader Eddie Conway, he was still behind bars, and he was able to call in on the phone and have a conversation with the audience about what was going on with political prisoners. Sonia Sanchez spoke after we did the original play and did some of her poetry. So man, that Fire In the Belly was something that, that I’ll never forget. And it brought this type of energy to Baltimore, and energy and collaboration to our work.

And I was able to speak with and have a little bit of time with Mr. Baraka two times after that Fire In the Belly series, and he always remembered me. We always talk, you know, Baltimore loved Amiri Baraka. And he was here for the Baltimore Book Festival and other events, so that was amazing. I was able to meet the great ancestor Frances Cress Welsing, who, her work had always inspired me and informed me, and made the world make sense to me. Like, when I thought I was crazy, I’ve read her book and realize I’m not crazy. All these [inaud.] are crazy. So it was nice to have that assurance and to meet Dr. Frances Cress Welsing.

And since Fire in the Belly, I’ve produced Slave Ship twice. And there’s nothing like directing and producing Slave Ship. Out of all the plays I’ve ever directed and produced, there is nothing like working with a group of actors to carry them through the Slave Ship experience, to even for a little bit try to embody what our ancestors went through in the middle passage. Wow. I mean, we start off with just kind of rocking. Like, laying down and like, pretending that we’re shackled, and rocking. And then we go to groans and moans and screams and cries, and man, that rehearsal process is something. I was really, every time I’ve done that show, every single rehearsal, just like, spit. Just like, spit, emotionally. It’s a very physical piece. So physically, spit.

And audiences have responded well to it, you know. That history, that pain, the torture that our ancestors went through. It’s still in our DNA. And I think that we’re still struggling to make sense of what happened to our people. And we’re still fighting against the oppression and the trickle-down of that, of what happened to our people during slavery. And it’s still one of those things that no one really wants to talk about, even though we have all these Hollywood movies coming out about it. People still need healing. Even after all these years.

So I just, I give thanks for the black arts movement. I give thanks for Amiri Barka and Sonia Sanchez and the Last Poets, and Ntozake Shange. And I know I’m getting a little later in age range, [inaud.] and you know, moving on forward through the times, of people who are still using their art to fight.

End

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