Projects, Plays, and Bobby Flay in New Jersey
In order to read this you should put on LL Cool J’s Around the Way Girl. This is an interactive reading, so feel free to talk back, um hmm, nod, and agree. (Awkward pause while I wait for you to look up the song on YouTube). 'Cause black theater, our theater, doesn’t happen any other way, especially in Camden. Ntozake Shange said it best, “Black people shouldn’t do theater without music and dance.” So Leggo! I see you! #bobbingheadtothebeat
First Stop-I’m leavin: Camden, I remember it in the eighties. When I left for Northeastern University in Boston, I swore I was leaving and never ever coming back to this god-forsaken town. We only had a few drug spots when I left. The main drug set operated in the McGuire Housing Projects (the forbidden section of the city according to my mother). In McGuire, I actually saw a family cook crabs on a barbeque grill! I thought their culinary expertise was so ingenious. Now that I look back, the lights were probably cut off and they just had a taste for crabs, not that the family was the precursor for Bobby Flay.
What I was really getting at the time, unbeknownst to me, was a lesson in creativity and resourcefulness that were needed to creatively serve a community when no one in the state, more importantly the city, understood the cry of the citizens.
My first disclaimer is I must be totally absolutely nuts to start a theater company in Camden, New Jersey. Camden consistently ranks as one of the poorest and most violent cities in the nation. The homicide rate is almost twelve times the national average; forty two percent of the city’s 77,000 residents live in poverty. Think 1970’s Good Times sitcom. So this has to be a calling, because if not, I need to check myself in and be examined. Especially because I built an African American theater company even as I watched African American theater companies all over the country struggle to keep their doors open.
And even more startling because I did it in South Jersey, which has been the financial stepchild of arts funding in the state. A South Jersey arts organization is the child you send a child support check to, but no way are they living the lifestyle you and your children who reside with you are accustomed to.
Or starting a theater company resembles the actions of that same teenage girl who ventured into the McGuire housing projects back in the eighties, so attempting the forbidden must be my nature. But it is not the fear of the forbidden that shaped my ability to initiate and lead.
When I look back, I have been producing since the second grade: the birthday party for my second grade teacher saw me (bossy as hell) passing around a list and telling everybody what to bring; starting a drill team in middle school, The Southside Smurfettes; in high school, I produced homecoming and played Rosanna Rosanna Danna in the pageant. My first newspaper interview as an actress came from playing Rosa Parks in my junior year.
Similar to dating the guy from the wrong side of the tracks the one your mother forbade you to see. But it was something about his swag that made you blush at just the thought of him. He gave you the right combination, the right amount of affection and grit, and knew how to touch your cheek just right. The touch was playful and soft, but direct enough to make your insides turn into butter. He saw your need for attention and responded.
Second Stop-Say What Now: But those extensions, that bad attitude, and the forbidden that LL swoons over explain why I love Camden: the stories, the people, and the theater we produce. Camden Repertory Theater is a card carrying, full-fledged Around the Way Girl member. She probably received her membership during her birth, early in life, but wait the bad attitude; it's a badge of honor! Yeah you heard right, but hear me out. Some of it I take the blame for but some hell no… I will not and refuse to take the weight for. It's innate! When I was in graduate school, I wrestled with the absence of voices like my own—those of urban, women of color—from the Western theatrical cannon.
My playwright professor Stuart Spencer at Sarah Lawrence said, “Who cares, Desi? Put [your complaints] into the art that is what it is there for.” So I took Stuart’s advice and the Camden Trilogy begins.
I wrestled with the absence of voices like my own—those of urban, women of color—from the Western theatrical cannon. My playwright professor Stuart Spencer at Sarah Lawrence said, 'Who cares, Desi? Put [your complaints] into the art that is what it is there for.'
For the record, I never wanted to be a playwright. All I wanted to do was heal from this broken heart of having a baby out of wedlock. I couldn’t believe the great Desi P. Shelton had a baby without being married. Noooo, not me. I was too good for that statistic. My goal wasn’t to break attendance records, and introduce people from the hood to solo theater. I just wanted not to die from a broken heart, so I used what I learned in the SLC MFA program and wrote I Killed My Baby’s Daddy, a solo performance piece performed with a live DJ, directed by Barrymore Award Winner Ozzie Jones with sound designed by Larry Cisum Fowler, who had toured with Renny Harris.
When the people came out in droves to see I Killed My Baby’s Daddy, a one-woman show, my thesis for my masters, it confirmed that there was a need for our stories to be told from an urban point of view. The audience was there, waiting, cell phones ringing, late seating... They squirmed in their chairs, um-hummed, cried, laughed, and cheered through I Killed My Baby’s Daddy.
Two years later, I find myself birthing a theater company in Camden, New Jersey. P@$$y 4 $ale! Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, Twelve Dancing Princesses, for colored girls, Late Bus to Mecca, Dirty Panties. Camden city buzzed because now they saw their stories on stage. Cause if Camden Rep doesn’t give the voice of the girls from the hood a vehicle to transform life into art, a stage to emote, a place to put broken glass into an ornate kaleidoscope, then who will?
Third Stop: We have two theater companies in Camden. They both began around eight years ago. One was started by a white male from the suburbs, the other began by an African American female born and raised in Camden, with a Master’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College: myself. One has a beautiful theater built by the local community development organization; the other must be creative, for instance producing P@$$y for Sale in a home and calling it site specific theater. You match the picture to the scenario; better yet, look up YouTube for a skit by Eddie Murphy as a white man.
There is truth in comedy.
Despite my women and power education and my hood swag, I still let a man, Jamal P. Dickerson, a Milken Award winning educator talk me into starting the Arts-in-Education branch of the theater company.
PACE (Preparing Artist for College Entrance) is the key program in our theater’s education branch. The goal of PACE is simple: use the performing arts as a bridge to high school graduation and college matriculation. PACE students proactively invest in their own development—both professionally and academically. Young artists use theater and performing arts as a vehicle for self-exploration, critical examination, and to derive a sense of accomplishment as they develop. Our PACE students are now returning to Camden with college degrees.
The Finale: I’m doing nothing different than the McGuire family who was grilling crab; now we just call it community engagement. Camden Rep’s work incorporating neighborhood community engagement as a model leads the way in New Jersey, blazing the trail other organizations are just stumbling upon. CRT offers an opportunity for young people to create high quality art, new work, powerful mainstage mounted work, and touring productions. We are the only company giving jobs to young people who are trying to transition into professional careers. Camden Rep’s charge is obvious: create a home where local artists could be nurtured, and provide a vehicle to enable them to tell their stories.
Because in the end it doesn’t matter if we are preppy, around the way, or the girl next door; we are all just girls wanting to be heard, understood, and loved.
By the way, Bob Flay probably saw the crab cookout while he was roaming the streets of East Camden when he wasn’t supposed to! Uh-huh!