Using Theatre and Performance Art to Empower the Community
In this special episode of iMiXWHATiLiKE we feature WombWork Productions. For nearly two decades they have provided Afrikan-Centered social change theatre and performance art for the Baltimore community.
RASHIDA FORMAN-BEY: Well we started out as a summer program as a part of–in collaboration with this John Hopkins School of Nursing in Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition. Mama K actually started with a domestic violence project, summer project, where we had young people who were dealing with issues in regards to domestic violence and this was a theater project. At the end–this was a summer job and they had a powerful show that was presented to the East Baltimore community and from then on..
KAY LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: And we expanded and expanded. Our focus was violence prevention from many facets. Community violence, every area you could think of we began to focus on violence and from there like Mama Rashida said we expanded to a full-time company and we just kept expanding and kept expanding. We kept adding members and community members and board members until we built this community, Womb Workers.
FORMAN-BEY: That’s the truth.
DEBORAH PIERCE-FAKUNLE: And we started really tackling all kinds of issues and collaborating with other organizations, community organizations, grassroot organizations, some government organizations. They would commission us to do performances dealing with compelling issues. Issues such as HIV prevention, drug prevention, gang violence prevention was one of the issues that we dealt with. We also collaborated with Morgan State University School of Public Health in dealing with issues around sexual assault as well as HIV prevention and certainly sexual assault. We’ve done some shows on childhood sexual assault. So any issue that effects communities and particularly youth and their families, we try to tackle those issues through theater. We find the arts just to be a powerful tool in helping to heal our community.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: Our process is a very African focused. We use the rites of passage model. We also use the virtues model–virtues project model as a part of character building for our people. I guess the main thing is our focus is really the emotional emancipation of breaking the lie of white supremacy and the lie of black inferiority. That is our push in every facet that we work on, Mama Deborah’s one of our board members and an actor. She just does multiple things with us as we all do. But our thrust within our community as community workers is that lie. And so our work is really very much empowered by that thought as we worked with that whole thought of emotional emancipation of our people.
FORMAN-BEY: Because we’re finding from theater, even sometimes when we go into schools, before we’re even able to teach about theater, particularly in African American communities sometimes we have to deal with issues around image. How we view ourselves. How we feel about ourselves. We really have to actually tackle this lie of black inferiority. It’s 2016 and we have young people who are still using black as an insult. Feeling like the way their nose look or the way their hair looks is not okay and we are trying to eradicate that. We use theater as a way to help young people talk about those issues and really help elevate and emotionally emancipate ourselves in regards to that.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: The other component that I think is important that we have done, I don’t know if on purpose but it just fell that way, that we have been working systemically with health disparities have been thing for us, yes. So we have really worked diligently in certain areas that are kind of different than tradition and other theater works but we have gone right in and this has made us such revolutionaries in working with community building because I think that’s our thrust. We do that. I don’t know Mama Deborah would you like to talk a little bit on that?
PIERCE-FAKUNLE: Well I would certainly say that the things that are done are a different way of getting information to the people that’s needed and through the theater, I think it’s received better because the issues are prevalent from every direction. But one of the things I know a lot of time people talk around stuff and never talk to stuff. But through productions, the pieces that are done direct things head on. Not just by identifying the problems but by identifying solutions in the production because a lot of times we would talk stuff to death and when you walk away from the conversation you have no way of dealing with anything because nobody every address that. But I always say that Womb Works ends with a solution to the problems that they deal with.
FORMAN-BEY: Yea because you know, one about–we believe that the community has the power and the wisdom to heal itself. So in that we share true stories and the solutions that we come up with are solutions that we as a community have come up with together. So it’s real and I think that is the power in the productions because they are real stories. We do share factual information and we come up with solutions that are the community solutions to its problems. That is the healing part of it. That’s what makes the healing really powerful.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: The other component I think is the spiritual part which we bring. We’re not afraid of spirituality. We as a people are very spiritual and even us coming with differnet religious understandings, we all bring that and recognize the beauty in all of consuming that in a way of a part of what we bring. And that is a big part of what makes it so powerful I think.
PIERCE-FAKUNLE: I do to too because I think particularly as African people in the diaspora all around and on this continent of Africa, many times one of the things that separates us–religion is a really big thing. It keeps us separate sometimes. But in Womb Work, what we try to do is to bring together those as Mama Kay those religions. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re Christian, Islam you know practice Islam, whether you practice [Ifa]. I mean all of our traditional–whether you practice in the [econ] religion, whatever it is, we come together knowing that we are one. Coming together in unity. And we have ceremonial practices. We may go to a sweat lodge or we may–in celebration of our Native American culture we may bring together, have young people mediating, doing [agnabulture] and bringing together all of our–whatever healing modality that can bring healing to our community. That’s our focus, that’s what we want to bring. And with that, young people and elders get a chance to experience all of that and to see the oneness in all of our spiritual walks.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: You just said something too. The intergenerational component is a very important element that we bring village. Because we have theater companies for every age group. You know the little ones, they just left us that’s why we’re exhausted right now. So we have 5-12 year olds and sometimes they come 3 and 2. And then we have the teenage group and then we have the older group. And sometimes we work all together. So I think it’s very village like. And that is very wonderful.
FORMAN-BEY: Because that’s important in our community is that we recognize the village and then we honor the elders and then we learn from them and then we pass it on to the young folk. So that’s one of the other things that I appreciate much about Womb Works is that it’s generational. Because that’s necessary.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: Yeah, that’s very important.
PIERCE-FAKUNLE: Yeah, and just the model of each group reaching back and helping the group behind him because our adult company, specifically our young adults, you know the 21-35 year olds, they’re mentoring the teenage group. And the teenage group, they’re working to mentor the 5-12 year-olds and standing as an example because that is a traditional African way. We have to be responsible for the generations coming up behind us and we try to model that in everything that we do.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: And I can go a step further to say that that older group is really preparing very quickly to take over. I think they’re doing–I think right now in this last year particularly with them taking over and teaching positions and being so successful, that I see them gearing up to really take our places as we move into seniorhood. And it seems like there’s nothing we can do it’s an inevitable process as we move into the winter of our lives that we are leaving something to that young people.
PIERCE-FAKUNKLE: But you have prepared them to take over and you get the opportunity to watch them in action, what a gift, what a gift.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: Yeah, they’re in a great film that is going around the country now in film festivals called.
FORMAN-BEY: Confidential Informants.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: Confidential Informants.
FORMAN-BEY: It’s a short film. It is getting rave reviews. I think Thaddeus just came back from LA. They had a red carpet celebration of the film I think down in Virginia, outside of DC. So it’s a lot going on.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: He just text me though. Thaddeus just text me to say that based on that film he just got a really huge audition and asked for our prayers. We’re praying for you Thaddeus.
FORMAN-BEY: I think he’s doing a period film. This is for a period film on PBS that he’s auditioning for.
PIERCE-FAKUNKLE: But there are some other folks that I think are doing some great things. I think because of their theater experience and because of their–because we do social change theater, many of them are now committed to making changes in their community. So we have some young people who are working in human services.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: David [Fakunle] is in a doctorate program at Hopkins but not only that, he’s already acting as a board member and getting us so much work and really introducing us to academia and grant writing. He’s doing so much to help the community that it’s amazing. And it’s Mama Deborah’s son. But Mama Deborah tell us about your daughter who is Mary Fakunle. She’s in medical school now. Tell us a little bit about her.
PIERCE-FAKUNLE: Mary’s at Rutgers, New Jersey School of Medicine. Both of them I am proud to say are raised social conscious. And part of that raising came through their experience here with Womb Work Production. So they know that they owe something to the community to help change it. I tell them all the time, you don’t have to stay here but you’ve got to help. So that’s where they come from.
FORMAN-BEY: Yes and I was thinking of–there was some young people I was thinking of Latif, some of our young people have gone back to work in human services, doing consoling, working as counselors. There are some young people of course that are doing–Omarion [Falasade] are both teachers teaching dance or teaching theater. We have young people working with us that are theater teachers here in Baltimore. But all of them have come through and are doing great work in their community and that’s the very important thing. And their commitment to their community. So we are really celebrating. But it was the theater experience, I think that really helped them to be able to go out with confidence, to be able to go out and become leaders in their community. It’s really important. This theater experience really helped them in terms of leadership, team building, and all that.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: I’ll tell you what else I’d like to give a shout out to, we are building a group of young people, Edward, Christian, Charles, John Hasboro, [Artardis], that are going into the schools with us and I think we are really having a brand of how we have to group teach in city schools. It has to be a team effort because there are so many challenges in these schools, particularly discipline problems and so forth that you need a team to do it. Now we’re working without the kind of pay that is deservent of such work but I think we’re planting in the minds of principals and heads of schools that you have to think about this for the resource classes in order for it to be effective because I think that we are finding that the young people are getting so much from these experiences and people being trained properly on how to guide and teach our children is becoming a very powerful part of Womb Work.
FORMAN-BEY: I think our process of using the virtues process–we have a communication process that we learned from virtues project international and we’ve been incorporating that into our curriculum so that young people, just teaching young people how to speak to each other. How to speak to each other civil-y. So really to help young people and their character building skills to increase those.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: And the rites of passage are really making young people proud of their culture and it’s unfortunate that that sometimes is quite a struggle. Because there’s so many negative thoughts and ideas. I work at a school, an international school where many of the children are from Africa and the bullying that is done to those children from our own young African American children saddens me. And we have to really begin to build and let us know the beauty of this rich culture that we can come together as one big family. You know the African union we’ve done work with them and we know we’re all one and we’ve got to work on getting young people to understand that.
PIERCE-FAKUNKLE: I think that’s where our rites of passage techniques come in in terms of because we do open–we have some rituals that we do every time we do an opening of a unity circle. Pouring libation, having young people remember their ancestors, talking about our history so that–what it does, this gets back to emotional emancipation, many of us when we don’t know our history here in America and on the continent of Africa and so learning to love who we are and dispelling that lie, it really bridges the gap and helps young people. Because once you feel good about who you are, you’re going to want to move towards achieving and move towards to higher levels of understanding and step in your place of confidence and really take on leadership roles that we were born to do.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: That’s correct Mama, well said. Friend us on Facebook. Womb Work Productions in Facebook, Instagram, under Womb Worker. Yea we would love to hear from you.
FORMAN-BEY: Yup and our website is www.wombwork.com. You can look us up. You can send a pay—you go to paypal if you want to make a tax deductible donation.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: That would be helpful.
FORMAN-BEY: That would be very helpful for costumes and all the supplies that we need.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: And if you’re interested in acting, if you’re interesting in coming and having an experience, you know contact us. You can reach us at (410)258-1504.
FORMAN-BEY: Or (410)905-3477.
LAWAL-MUHAMMAD: Love you. Thank you.
FORMAN-BEY: Alright, peace.
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