Archival Revival | Cheerleader for the Revolution: Thoughts on Carpetbag Theater Company

By Ann Kilkelly
Originally published: November 2002 | Republished: March 7, 2016

The Archival Revival Series looks back at articles by ROOTers, about ROOTS, in celebration of our 40th anniversary. This series and the field of arts activism, owes an incredible debt of gratitude to ROOTS members Linda Frye Burnham and Steven Durland who, through
Art in the Public Interest (API), first published this piece on the Community Arts Network (CAN). API describes CAN as a “project [that] promoted information exchange, research and critical dialogue within the field of community-based arts.” Active from 1999-2010, CAN modeled the kind of grassroots documentation and thought leadership that we seek to cultivate on the ROOTS blog. The full CAN archive is still available via Archive-It, courtesy of Indiana University. We gratefully reprint these articles here, with the permission of API.

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Linda Parris-Bailey, artistic director of Carpetbag Theater, jokes that the company calls her “the cheerleader for the revolution, and says, “We have been accused of being celebratory.” Parris-Bailey leads Carpetbag with humor and political commitment in developing original works within and for their communities, self-defined as largely African-American and working-class. If cheerleading is orchestrated, supportive performances for the home team from the vantage point of the margins, then, Parris-Bailey is, indeed, a cheerleader. Carpetbag’s work also involves the analysis, critique and creation of theater that centrally concerns intractable social problems experienced in marginalized communities. From this standpoint, the art itself images the possibility of “revolution” or a “turning around” in characters’ and actors’ lives. Carpetbag’s original plays, music and projects make complex art out of the fabric of lives in their own communities; and these performances blend change and cheerleading, social critique and celebration, in well-developed aesthetic processes that are filled with the passion of liberatory energy. This kind of revolution in the imagination of the community is undertaken in hopes of changing the historical dynamics of racism.

Carpetbag’s situation parallels the stories of other relatively “senior” arts organizations that were formed in the early ’70s with a decidedly alternative social and political agenda. The core work and politics are implied in the mission, which remains:

To give artistic voice to the underserved – address the issues and dreams of people who have historically been silenced by racism, classism, sexism and ageism; tell the stories of empowerment; celebrate our culture; and reveal hidden stories.

In Nayo Watkins’ interviews with Carpetbag’s company and community members, Linda Parris-Bailey frequently talks about “giving back” to the community. Not only does this phrase imply the strong sense of historical obligation to home communities expressed by many educated black people, but it also defines the company’s sense of their part of an artistic and cultural exchange with a community. The exchange implies more than art making as service; in giving and taking stories, in sharing responsibility for educating young people, the theater group both reflects and defines cultural identity.

Discovery of Artistic Practice

Carpetbag makes performances from individual stories, from family experiences and from historical events in African-American traditions. Often their process involves the research of listening and questioning community members about their memories of particular events relevant to both historical and present concerns. “Red Summer” was created as a response to the Knoxville race riots of 1919, and many of those interviewed remember it as a signal event in their own experience. “Dark Cowgirls and Prairie Queens,” Parris-Bailey’s signature piece about black women in the American west, blended historical research with contemporary experiences. Recent works “Nothin’ Nice” and “Swopera” focus on social and economic pressures experienced by African-American youth. Many of those interviewed note that Carpetbag addresses the profound absence of plays about or by black people, women, poor people, and kids. And while the plays do treat historical and signal events around race, gender and class, the register of the events is in the individual experience framed in an understanding of systemic issues. Parris-Bailey is clearly a director/playwright in a somewhat traditional sense, in that she places great emphasis on the written word, and the plays, especially the early ones, have a literary quality that is often framed out in classical realism. Yet her written words incorporate and evolve from collaborative processes and they are fully woven with the parallel text of choral spectacle and dance. There is multiple authorship and strong leadership; they make side-by-side aesthetic spaces for historical representation and critical commentary.

Raging Fireball

Carpetbag Theatre is artist-centered, and company members describe experiencing an awakening to vocation in their first experiences with the company. When Watkins asks him for a favorite story, company member and technical director Jeff Cody tells a story about former company member and founder of Café Noir, Margo Miller:

She (Margo Miller) got into Carpetbag and she embraced the mission statement, and she was working part-time in the pharmacy department at K-mart. She got so into the mission statement that, on top of the other experience that she had, she got into working for diversity and empowerment. She just became a raging fireball. She has picked up so many tools and so many new things and has evolved them into her own. She has surpassed everything so that her association with Carpetbag has really motivated her to be somebody who we are going to go in the future, “Oh! Margaret Miller –” in the history books. It’s the whole thing with her being into computers and stuff, too. She’s going global.

I think that, for many artists, the discovery that political and social commitments can be addressed in art making is a signal moment, one that connects individual identity to a particular community and confers legitimation on the passion for art making. This passion for the art itself is a strong characteristic of Carpetbag’s work; the joy in the making, in the individual’s discovery that her/his own material has an interest for others.

Cody’s story also reveals his own deep commitment to the mission. Cody has been with the organization since 1976, and has worn what he calls two hats, those of technical director and financial manager, although he has often performed and has been a researcher and collaborator throughout his association with Carpetbag since 1976. Like Miller, Cody learned many practical skills in the necessity of keeping Carpetbag together. This flexibility, or demand for multiple skills, Cody sees as part of Carpetbag’s ability to survive for more than 30 years. Carpetbag’s model allows for, even requires, hands-on, experience-based learning that occurs as the situation requires it. As in many small arts ensembles, the practical necessity of doing anything that needs to be done turns out to be a catalyst for the development of human resources. The relative lack of capital may produce an abundance of human capital in the short term. Most of the Carpetbag company can perform multiple jobs and often do take multiple roles, on and off stage. Yet necessity is not the only mother of invention, as artists here and in other “Performing Community” studies also relish the opportunity to try their hand at design or acting. The absence of restriction to a single role, read only as required by lack of resources, may be a serious misunderstanding of a desire for multiple roles or developmental change within as organization.

Longtime company member Linda Hill also describes her discovery of a vocation in theater during her first show with Carpetbag:

I was a music major, and my early training is in classical bass. Linda recruited me to do some incidental music for a play called “Celebration.” I did a little bass work, a little guitar work for some of the characters’ movement music. And I didn’t go to sleep. I had just gotten a job. I had decided that I needed to take a break from school because I was going to do damage to my transcript if I didn’t get focused. I had gotten a job at Krispy Kreme Donut Company on the night shift, so that the first night of performance I had to go straight to work, work through the day. I never went to sleep. I had a milkshake for my meal- that was the only sustenance that I had until the next show. … When we finished the last performance, I stepped off stage and I was like, “We did it! And this is it; this is what I can do. This is what I can do right on the planet.

What I really love about these stories is the palpable pleasure in the retelling of the germinal moment, a pleasure connected to possibility, freedom and self—knowledge against the backdrop of K-Mart and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. It is hard to commit to work that earns so few “real-life” economic rewards, and harder still to believe in that work over years of struggling to find support. Carpetbag members’ strong sense of the usefulness of the art in shaping identity appears to be a crucial element in company longevity. Cody often comes back to this point and to the ongoing relevance of the mission statement.

Parris-Bailey clearly sees and encourages the creative process as activist practice of life and vocational skills. In her recent “Nothin’ Nice,” guest directed by Bob Leonard, Parris-Bailey used the theatrical situation to stage recurring and intractable situations and potential for change in the lives of a black family.

Starr Releford, who plays the young protagonist in this piece, describes the story:

This one is about a guy named Lone Wolf. He’s 21 years old. He’s an AmeriCorps worker. He has a three- or a four-year-old daughter and basically the story revolves around him, and of course his family, but mainly him. He’s struggling cause he’s trying to kinda be on his own, yet he is still under his mother’s wing. You know how it is when the mother does want her son to go out there and be on his own — but it’s kinda hard for her to let him go cause that’s her son. And so it’s just about life. About him adapting to his environment. Adapting to how things are going on around him, but yet there’s always a conflict. He has a daughter that’s growing up. He’s still dealing with the baby’s mother, they’re not together but they communicate because of the child. And later on, he finds out his mother has cancer. All kinds of things coming from all directions basically hitting him at one time. Forcing him to deal with it, forcing him to grow up.

Clearly, Releford understands and articulates the dilemma faced by many young black men. Yawah Awala, a parent and volunteer for the company, makes a moving remark about the urgency of the connection between young actors and young characters:

Look at this. Take a look at it and see that you do have a choice. Let’s act about it, let’s dance about it, but let’s not actually participate in it. We can pretend like we are doing drugs, we can pretend like we are drinking, but don’t actually do it because there is a downside to that.

The theater experience Awala believes to be kind of intervention. An intractable situation can be the site of “pretending” or imaginative work that is witnessed and analyzed, even changed with the collaboration of the players. Although the finished piece doesn’t involve the audience in a literal manner, the performance encourages the imagining of other models, as the situation is left unresolved. Indeed, as Augusto Boal says, the theater is a “practice of (not for) the revolution.” The environment of rehearsal and performance, unlike almost any real life environment, is physically safe and set in a representation of community and tradition. In “Nothin’ Nice,” Lone Wolf’s story is woven with original music and dance, drawing from vernacular traditions of gospel, blues, funk and other African-American forms. Importantly, the community of the stage character and the stage family are on stage as well. Older Carpetbag members, including Linda Parris-Bailey and Burt Tanner, play out the politics of previous generations, especially the more revolutionary politics of the ’70s. The onstage chorus visually links generations of African-American experiences with the present crisis of the protagonist, imaging the powerful but usually unseen social and political forces at work.

As noted by a number of community supporters, the performance of community stories validates multiple voices and perspectives, which Awala implies is a key element in self-esteem for youth and the re-articulation of community in the present. She says: “It gives children with nappy hair a sense of belonging. It gives children that want to wear their hair natural or any other kind of way … a sense of belonging.”

Ways of Giving Back

In all its work, Carpetbag has developed an enormous and varied range of partnerships and activities and a widespread involvement with educational programs and institutions. Carpetbag has many projects and many partnerships with public schools and community organizations that serve younger children and teens. Theater Renaissance for Youth (TRY), for example, is directed by Zakiyyah Modeste. There are programs with the Zoo, the Sexual Assault Crisis Center, AIDS Response Knoxville, The Black Cultural Programming Committee, Detoxification Rehabilitation Initiative, the Coalition Against State Killing, Project Change and many others.

They have a long-term association with Knoxville College, where the group was actually founded. In a move that has already proven explosively popular, Margo Miller organized Café Noir at the college, a club for monthly poetry slams. Carpetbag also has many projects and many partnerships with public schools and community organizations that serve younger children and teens.

Although connection with schools is not explicit in the mission, it is clearly an essential form of action. “Giving back” through education ranges from programming and direct involvement with schools at all levels, to the aesthetics deeply embedded in African-American traditions and 20th-century history. There is a conscious desire for impact on the community and a corresponding development in company members. Community members interviewed assign great value to the exposure of youth to creative avenues, show enthusiasm about the presence of theater from the African- American community, and repeatedly cite the potential of performance to motivate students to go to school.

Modeste, for example, provides her definition of success:

If they progress personally from it, … if they just learn, if they acquire a sense that they are further along with this, or they achieve projection, or they’ve gotten stage presence… I think that is why I am still with Carpetbag. That’s why I am still guiding us in that direction, I think, because it is very deeply rooted.

The ability to affect youth in a positive way, however minimal, keeps her with the company because the work is “very deeply rooted.” It is interesting that she assesses specific skill acquisition on almost any level as important because it is attached to something else that gives it importance – perhaps its context in African-American community, or in the telling of stories by others, or in the values attached to community.

Youth in the company are encouraged toward personal expression, visibility and employment, an inestimable benefit in Carpetbag’s core communities, which they identify as 60 percent African-American and working-class. Many interviewed comment on the job opportunities for youth – that they can learn to create collectively, and they can use their own experiences and stories in a collaborative process that generates some kind of work experience. This is a way of “giving back” to the performers an opportunity to have their voices heard, and it “gives back” an enormous hunk of history that honors the communities it came from.

Who Is Paying

Linda Parris-Bailey frequently remarks that they always “pay something” to those who work in productions. “Performing Communities” survey indicates that they pay all of their employees, and a number of company members, parents and supporters cite this as among the most important practices. Not only can young people be on the stage, they can also generate their own stories or work. It seems clear that they can thereby get a strong sense of possible shapes their lives could take. In addition, the work is offered as necessary labor and pleasurable.

Yet this “paying something,” as board member Dorothy Bennett considers, is not salary money, it is wage money and at a very low level of funding. Bennett says that she and Parris-Bailey have “agreed to disagree” about money, and her comment sheds light on one of the most key economic challenges:

Linda has done this as a labor of love. A true labor of love. Making nothing. When she talks to me about money I just look at her and laugh. It isn’t even of this world, when you are talking about $6 an hour. You can’t even talk to work-study students about $6 an hour. Just not. If the money does not change we won’t make it. We will not make it.

The chill in Bennett’s comment rises from an omnipresent concern about survival. The worry and barely suppressed anger reverberates throughout the companies in the “Performing Communities” project. Carpetbag’s Jeff Cody and Roadside’s Ron Short make extensive comments about the inglorious history of National Endowment of the Arts funding and conservative politics. Steve Bailey writes eloquently about Jump-Start’s fight against conservative forces that threatened and in part succeeded in defunding projects and organizations in San Antonio.

Bennett further worries about the absence of sufficient “giving back” from the community to Carpetbag:

But being on the fringes, the city doesn’t see Carpetbag as a value or a threat. And they have to be one. They have to have enough voting constituency that says, “We want Carpetbag.” Carpetbag doesn’t go out there and put out petitions to say we need 500 names to take to City Council to convince them that we should be part of the budget for recreation. To present them in a way that is less threatening to the city fathers and to the director of the recreation program.

Most telling is Bennett’s response to Watkins’ question about what the community gives back:

Bennett: Then in a different way, it impacts Carpetbag by its limited presence, by its cautiousness of a sort. The community is not an aggressive community — or an assertive community would be a more diplomatic word. The community whispers things. …The community does not shout out words like racism, classism, homophobic. Those things are not shouted. They don’t shout things like exploitation of workers. They don’t shout things like de facto segregation. They don’t shout things like schools filled with racism who throw children out rather than embracing children. They don’t shout things like condemned, dilapidated housing. They don’t shout things like overtaxation of the poor. None of those things are shouted. If the community was more pro-active, then Carpetbag could be more pro-active. But Carpetbag, to me, is limited like any other institution is limited by virtue of where they are and where the people are. And if Carpetbag were more assertive in its art presentations to the community and the kinds of programs they did with the community, I dare say, it couldn’t be on this college campus.

Watkins: Do you think that in what it does it pushes the button a little bit?

Bennett: Sure, sure. Carpetbag is on the edge of what this community permits. Very much on the edge. And for many people it’s too far out anyway. That’s part of the problem. And, you know, it is not perceived by the powers and the system as — it’s not the same as Clarence Brown Theatre at the university. So the university can draw 500 people to a play that talks about something that probably won’t change one life in a disadvantaged community,

Bennett’s comments make me wonder to what extent a company has to be responsible for organizing political action and advocating for visibility and funding at the same time. The political question engaged in a really tough one — having defined oneself as serving the underserved, from a standpoint that understands marginality as a political phenomenon, having developed critiques of systemic politics, how does a company “present them (itself) in a way that is less threatening to the city fathers and to the director of the recreation program?”

Clearly Carpetbag has managed the nearly miraculous in this respect — they have kept their focus on direct impact and the empowerment of artists. In reading Nayo Watkins’ interviews and thinking through the Carpetbag productions I have seen and read, I am aware that their successes in being about and for the communities they serve are exactly their greatest challenges. They struggle with visibility, despite their longevity and their remarkable touring profile; they and others who work with them question their ability to survive and be economically viable (that is, to pay members salaries and have sufficient resources for ongoing productions). They have very strong artistic visionary leadership in Parris-Bailey, but this in itself presents challenges for her, as she and other members must also spend increasing amounts of time developing partnerships, training and looking for constantly diminishing funding sources.

Carpetbag negotiates this systemic morass very well, yet the focus of the company has traded touring for more time at home. Jeff Cody worries about the decreased quantity of productions. And the work at home is increasingly administrative:

All of the little stress builders. And still being able to do the project. It was much simpler when you had earned income and a grant. …Carpetbag was headed to a certain space, to actually fulfilling the mission. It used to be you could get the empowerment rush through the organization, but still you could stop and get an individual grant to work on an individual project, and that would feed the other part of yourself. So now, that other part, the individual part, is sort of crippled in art so that you can fulfill the social part of your mission.

The Artist as Vehicle

Many of the above challenges relate to the desire to help young people create original work. There is in that an assumption that these voices, these young people have value in a broader environment that constantly devalues them. Furthermore, Parris-Bailey demands that the work be challenging and honest, requiring investment from the audience as well as the players. She describes the difficulty of simultaneously going “out” into communities and in going “in” to company and the development of individuals and the ensemble. She says, “and it really ultimately is going to take the two focuses operating simultaneously to do the level of work we are going to do.” Parris-Bailey also characteristically provides the link between the use of aesthetic materials and the community good:

Unlike any other medium in terms of the written word, theater is designed to be performed. So, in order to return to your audience, your community, whatever – in order to return the information, what you are looking for is a reality of the experiences. … It’s the word. It’s the stories. It’s the dialogue. …

We are very deliberate in our work, and the people that choose that connection … want to be connected with community. They understand that it’s a part of our mission that those stories are returned, returned in ways that are as honest as we can get them and also challenge us. Because some of the things that you hear in the stories are things that people have to challenge. And where do they find the will and the means to challenge?

We are the vehicles through which those stories come back. What we try to do is to seek out the lessons in the story for ourselves and for the community, too.

There is a confrontational quality, Parris-Bailey implies, in the stories that come back via the artist. Like so many of the grassroots theaters in this study, this openly change-oriented or radical intention is regarded as inextricably linked to the material itself. In crafting performance work, Parris-Bailey implies, the art is in helping the story get through, to become visible. In a sense the living, moving bodies of the actors contain untold history written into gestures and voices. The confrontation may be very different for audiences of different races, but this difference can be accommodated if the story is told with clarity and honesty.

While focused clearly on this mission of empowerment to specific groups, such work also provides the broadest audiences a broader and more complex understanding of racial, gender and class dynamics by providing complex and well-crafted stories that move and sing. The representation of even the hardest stories on stage, framed by music and community, provides an aesthetic shape and a distancing that moves the story to another place in the imagination. The distancing may be not the “objective” stance often thought of as requisite for art, but the clearing of space for reflection and reshaping experience imaginatively.

Every show I have seen by Carpetbag depicts characters in real-life dilemmas. In Parris-Bailey’s “Nothin’ Nice,” for example, the central character faces the issues of fatherhood and his own ability to take responsibility for his actions. The young women of the play, though not the focus here, show similar conflicts. Carpetbag’s treatment is unsparing about both the social and economic pressures brought to bear on these young people and about their individual responsibility to shape their own lives.

This theater work creates forms that speak about and to particular communities, patently not abstract or universal, but particular and accessible.

Systemic challenges also frame the personal challenges. Carpetbag is one of very few community-based ensembles directed by a woman of color. The double and triple stresses and challenges faced by a woman of color in the theater dealing with issues in and about the African-American community can not be over-exaggerated. English and Women’s Studies professor Donna Shores realizes this as she remarks:

And part of what it says is that she has been able to negotiate a marriage, a family and a career all this time and keep their support. … And yes, I think she says things to women, the community of women in general, if they all get to hear. I’m beginning to feel more intensely how slow we’ve been to pick up on all that we can do with Carpetbag. I feel sure that we could make some more women aware of her presence.

Moving Collective Energy to the Center

At Alternate ROOTS’ “Focus on Community Arts South” meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, April 17-21, 2002, I saw a showing of Carpetbag’s most recent piece, “Swopera.” With company collaboration, Parris-Bailey developed dramatic and musical material that deals with family history, homecoming and empowerment. It is the story of a family that reestablishes its roots by building a poetry café where its soul-food restaurant once was. Again evident are the multigenerational aesthetic, funk and jazz music and choreography, slam poetry and a roster of young performers. The show was clearly new, wildly energetic, tough and difficult to stage in the less-than-perfect space. It prominently included a long section of poetry by the young cast members, neatly woven into the soul-food metaphor. The writing blended Parris-Bailey’s characteristic wit with much less crafted or sophisticated work. On reflection, I found this evidence of an aesthetic that values a mixture of virtuosity and generosity. Not a playwrighting technique honored in written texts, but an important embodiment of how this art form remains porous to and in community.

The night after the close of a late-night cabaret that followed the performance, younger Carpetbag members did a series of impromptu solo performances, one after another. In the slam-poetry mode, piece after piece delivered an unimpeded chunk of each one’s experience, performed with exuberance and practiced skill. The others sat in a semi-circle close to the performer, leaning forward, absorbed, many of them mouthing the words to all the pieces. Many ROOTS elders sat in the circle, cheering this evidence of a new generation with empowered phenomenal voices.

In the performance and the talkback, Parris-Bailey and several of the younger company members talked about the show. They were still fresh, very excited and very engaged with the artistic structures of the work.

Parris-Bailey and Carpetbag have had the wisdom and the aesthetic insight to move the collective energy to the center of its work. Pleasure and empowerment come from the staging of community stories, from music with deep roots in community traditions, and each story potentially generates more stories and more pleasure, perhaps Carpetbag’s greatest success in its 31 years is this rolling wave of creativity its workshops and performances set in motion. We should all cheer these acts of the imagination as small revolutions.

It seems appropriate here to give Linda Parris-Bailey the last word, in which she addresses the critique of CBT as being too much in the positive:

If you don’t show people the way to the victory then what are you doing retelling the story? Its like John (O’Neal) said about telling the story to make oneself better, or telling the story to make the community better. There is a difference between a storyteller and a liar. So, we’re trying to be storytellers, not liars. The importance of that relationship is key. It reshapes the story. If we are not getting to the truth, … there is feedback from the community. Now, the community sometimes is challenged and needs to be challenged, and sometimes they don’t like that. But that’s all a part of how we all grow. So, it’s not that we have to constantly please, what we constantly are working for is to strike the familiar in terms of what the community has told us and return it to the community.

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Ann Kilkelly is a professor of theater arts and women’s studies at Virginia Tech. She is recognized nationally as a scholar and performer of jazz-tap dancing and history, performance studies and interactive performance techniques. She has received Smithsonian Senior Fellowships and a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant, and performs and gives master classes in jazz tap around the country. At Virginia Tech she served as the director of Women’s Studies for six years, she teaches and directs multimedia performance concerts, and she recently created the Diversity Training Laboratory to help students and faculty use performance techniques to examine diversity issues. Kilkelly also served as a site visitor for Roadside Theater for “Performing Communities.”

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All unattributed citations are from this research project and can be found in the online interviews of “Performing Communities: The Grassroots Ensemble Theater Research Project.”


Carpetbag | Cornerstone | Dell’Arte | Jump-Start

LAPD | Pregones | Roadside | WagonBurner


This article was first published on Community Arts Network in November 2002; it is reprinted here with permission from the publisher, Art in the Public Interest.

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Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.