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As It Marks 50 Years, Carpetbag Theatre Looks Ahead to Its Future

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Carpetbag Theatre
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The Carpetbag Theatre, Knoxville’s black theater ensemble company, is not about to pack it in. In fact, it has outlived many of its contemporaries in the regional and African American theater scene, celebrating its 50th anniversary with a gala earlier this month. 

Perhaps because Carpetbag doesn’t own its own stage space, the nationally-touring company may be better known outside its hometown than within it. But that could change as the group works to open its own theater, gains new leadership, and teaches locals how to tell their own stories in the digital age. 

 

Carpetbag was founded by local black activists and academics, under the artistic direction of Wilmer Lucas. He’d been involved in the black arts movement in Philadelphia before becoming a writer-in-residence at Knoxville College. 

 

Executive director Linda Parris-Bailey shared the story she heard about the origin of the Carpetbag name: It was jokingly suggested because Lucas was a Northerner. But that spurred a discussion about different points of view on Reconstruction. In the end, the name was chosen because it alludes to being a roving company and challenging mainstream views on history and culture.

 

The theater company hosts touring music and dance performances, but is best known for its professional ensemble. The group performs original works, often by emerging playwrights, at different theaters around Knoxville and around the country. 

 

The play’s social justice themes have covered environmental racism, the death penalty, and gentrification. But some shows simply provided a window into black family life, or reframed history from an African American perspective.

 

Parris-Bailey, who as artistic director also writes most of the plays, said, “History is so rich. And there are so many untold stories, particularly in the African American community.... They always have lessons for us. Every. Day.”

 

Many other theater companies founded around the same time have folded, even in bigger cities. Not Carpetbag. In recent years, its work has attracted funding from national foundations.

Recently, the ensemble staged six plays from its own history in honor of its golden anniversary. The earliest in the cycle dates to the 1980s, Parris-Bailey said. The final installment last month, “Red Summer,” focused on a racist riot that happened in Knoxville in 1919.

 

The group owns no permanent theater space. But it tours nationally, offering both plays and workshops to help community organizations tell their own stories. 

 

Keeping pace with modern storytelling, Carpetbag also developed the Parris-Bennett Digital Story House in East Knoxville. “Our work is story-based, and it didn’t seem to be too big a leap to be sharing a process for people to share their own stories,” Parris-Bailey said. Carpetbag holds workshops where participants record short personal stories, mixing them with sounds and images to make a video. The process begins with a circle of participants responding to a prompt, such as: “Tell about when something unexpected happened.”

 

Joe Tolbert, digital story house manager, was a 17-year-old student at Carter High School when he composed his own digital story during a summer program at Carpetbag. 

 

“It showed me how stories can be used as a tool of healing, because at the time I was dealing with the fallout, emotionally and otherwise, of a family member being killed by a cop here in Knoxville.”

 

That incident became his topic, collaged with images of police brutality and the sounds of hip hop music by Bilal.

 

“I saw and learned first-hand how art and storytelling and culture-making can be a tool for healing and restoration of our own selves, and largely, the community,” Tolbert said.

 

The Digital Story House has become deeply involved in working with veterans in Tampa, Florida who are recovering from post-traumatic stress. It’s in the process of expanding the effort to Knoxville and the regional VA facility in Johnson City. 

 

Parris-Bailey said Carpetbag has been partnering withpsychosocial rehabilitation and recovery centers to help veterans develop their stories in a group setting with peers and counselors.

 

“Often times what we hear at the end of this creative process is that they’ve never told that story to me before,” Tolbert said. “It’s profound that some of these people have been in therapy and working with these therapists for years, and for them to feel comfortable enough to tell this particular group a story that their therapist has never heard has been really great.”

 

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Credit Carpetbag Theatre
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A scene from "Speed Killed My Cousin," produced at the University of South Florida in 2013.

Hand-in-hand with this project, Carpetbag toured an original play about multiple generations of veterans with trauma, called “Speed Killed my Cousin.” 

 

That was supported by a grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA). Meena Malik, NEFA’s theater program manager, said Carpetbag was one of just six theater companies chosen out of 100 applicants. She said “Speed” was important for its handling of overlooked topics, like the experience of black women in combat. But Carpetbag’s touring plan also stood out: At each stop, the company invited dialogue with veterans through story circles and digital storytelling.

 

“Obviously the work they do is superb,” Malik said. “In addition to that, to make the connection to the community deeper, the work that they do is so meaningful.”

 

Locally, Carpetbag guided a digital storytelling workshop with low-income students enrolled in Knoxville’s Project Grad summer institute at Pellissippi State Community College. After learning about components of regional planning, transportation, and public health, the students composed a digital story about what they envision for their community.

 

Tolbert said Carpetbag is planning a story circle tour around Knoxville at the beginning of next year, with a special focus on East Knoxville, where the city’s black population is concentrated. There is a fee for the workshops, which often last two or three days, but Carpetbag tries to help groups find partners to assist with the cost.

 

Digital storytelling is only one of the ways Carpetbag is evolving as it enters its next half-century. 

 

Its leadership is changing, too. After 45 years, Parris-Bailey is leaving at the end of the year to pursue independent projects. Managing director Jonathan Clark is in line to step into her shoes at Carpetbag. The handoff has been six years in the making. 

 

The theater’s process of creating a leadership pipeline has been so intentional that NEFA is using it as a model for other arts organizations, Malik said. Carpetbag is hosting a NEFA gathering in December that aims to encourage theater companies in Appalachia to pursue innovative touring projects.

 

Parris-Bailey said she hopes Carpetbag will continue to focus on original work, launching new artists, and galvanizing social justice. But she foresees the ensemble experimenting with different forms and techniques under Clark, whose background is in spoken word.

 

“I think you’re going to see a shift in the productions and even how they’re produced,” she said. 

Clark is currently writing a historical play about how black brick-masons helped drive the East Tennessee economy. It will be performed as a public reading in December.

 

Carpetbag is working toward another big change as it looks for a building that could house a 200-seat theater. The search is focused on East Knoxville, where a lot of the city’s black population lives. Paris-Bailey said having a permanent home would help more locals find Carpetbag, perhaps raising its profile around town to reflect its national reputation.

But some things won’t change, Tolbert said.

 

“At the core is the mission of revealing the hidden stories of people who have been silenced by oppression,” he said. “And that’s kind of like the through-line, whether the story takes form as a full evening-length theater production, or whether it’s us going into communities and sharing songs and stories, or whether it’s a digital storytelling training.”