Oakland’s House/Full of BlackWomen launching fundraiser Saturday
By Lou Fancher
It is triumph and tragedy that House/Full of BlackWomen, a site-specific performance art project, has cause to expand its vibrant grass-roots “Episodes.”
Until now publicized primarily by word-of-mouth and staged mostly for people who happened upon them in public spaces or for “insiders” attending in-the-know events at undisclosed locations in Oakland, triumph arrived most visibly in the form of a $182,500 Open Spaces Grant from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. Awarded to the organization founded in 2015 by dance-theater artist and director Amara Tabor-Smith with co-director and writer Ellen Sebastian Chang, the grant recognizes House/Full’s groundbreaking work in spotlighting and counteracting issues of displacement and sex-trafficking of black women and girls in Oakland.
The support is being directed to expanding the collective’s organizational infrastructure as it gears up for “Episode 14: The New Chitlin Circuitry: Reparations Vaudeville.” Organizers say the performance project is “an act of insistence of black female original genius” aimed at well-being. Free public performances, tentatively set for October, will take place at the CASS recycling plant, 2730 Peralta St. in West Oakland, and King Estate Open Space Park, 8501 Fontaine St. in East Oakland.
Tragedy lingers on House/Full’s horizon because oppression and violation of black and brown women and girls’ bodies continues. Well-aware of racist and sexist history from slavery through the vaudeville era to today, undiminished urgency about their mission leaves House/Full in no way representing victimhood. Instead, Chang in an interview says by asking and answering hard questions, women in the collective have become empowered and change, rewriting their histories.
“When we change, through our own clarity, then the public starts to change. Right now, the public is facing its fears and volatility,” says Chang. “The system has designed everything we’re facing. But if black women start to change, then the younger generation will see it.”
Vaudeville, Chang insists, is a good fit for the group because it is an intensely democratic art form.
“It was a variety act so you could see opera singers, tap dancers and short comedy sketch artists perform together. It embraced immigrant culture: Jewish, Polish and others. It’s the right format because one of the things we want to show is the incredible range and diversity that exists among black women.”
Chang says society suffers from a dearth of curiosity and black women are especially likely to be “lumped into silo boxes” or worse, stigmatized.
“Why do African-American women have the highest eviction rates in the United States? Why, in the sexual exploitation of women, are black women at the bottom of the scale in terms of believability? Black women are demonized: suspected, always having to exercise a kind of politic of ‘let me just keep working and working to prove my humanity.’ Black girls and women who report being sex-trafficked are often asked what they were wearing or doing, implying blame and shame.”
Chang says unlearning the false history of black women restores dignity to women who “gave their bodies to be used like factories to birth the laborers that would build the wealth of the country.”
Even so, black women are not solely responsible for educating the world to their truths.
“Ignorance of history is no excuse. It requires effort and curiosity to learn another version of history — and willingness to consider other people’s experience.”
House/Full chooses to engage in alternative activism — speaking truth to power with a creative, ritualistic approach that nudges the spirit within every human to pause and question why they believe something. Chang says stimulating meaningful dialogue addressing sex trafficking, housing and food insecurity, racial reparations and other tough topics happens best in an atmosphere without fear — for audiences and performers alike. For that reason performers in House Full’s public processions are often veiled, protecting the identities of women and young girls.
“It’s our job to be sensitive in form, know the facts and not exploit the people we work with,” she says.
Close association with Oakland artist, activist and educator Regina Evans and a commitment to deep research of past and recent history for each episode places House/Full at the forefront in changing culture through wisdom, respect and learning, not anger.
Just one example of how that manifests itself in Episode 14 is information gathered about vaudeville and the “Chitlin Circuit.” For to African American performers from the 1880s through the 1930s, vaudeville offered the freedom to travel, ability to earn a living wage and a welcome alternative to poorly paid rural farm or domestic work, often the only available employment for people of color at the time. The Chitlin Circuit developed during the art form’s heyday in the early 20th century to better support African-American vaudeville performers disabused by white showbiz circuits. Black actors, singers, comedians, musicians, dancers and acrobats were provided better touring opportunities and improved conditions by the alternative representation.
Chang says the recycling plant and park were selected to bring attention to the areas and what they represent.
“West Oakland, where the CASS plant is, has one of the largest displacements of low-income and black culture in the Bay Area. Kings Estate represents black women’s ability for migration: we’ll be hiking to a natural spot and seeing the wealth and beauty of the natural landscape.”
Tabor-Smith’s original vision for House/Full included acquiring property in Oakland that could house black women and offer residencies for black women artists. Chang says that dream remains and that “baby steps along the way” — greatly aided by the grant and as House/Full launches a GoFundMe campaign on Feb. 29 — will turn those tiny steps into the leaps of giants.