It's only a hop and a skip away, but it still seems like a world apart. An easy 10-minute walk from downtown Albuquerque takes you to Out ch'Yonda, a hip, relatively new performance and exhibit space located in the heart of Albuquerque's historic Barelas neighborhood. A little over a year ago, local artists Stephanie Willis and Virginia Hampton opened shop in the pleasantly ramshackle building, creating a venue to promote work by artists of color. It's an experiment in grassroots arts and activism that's a much-needed addition to Albuquerque's cultural landscape.
The two women have been organizing various art and theater projects in Albuquerque for over a decade. They've put on exhibits at places like [AC]2 and produced performances at the KiMoTheatre, the South Broadway Cultural Center and the Vortex Theatre. They formed Omnirootz Productions back in the early '90s to produce plays by Black playwrights. Now, finally, they have their own home, and they're eager to develop Out ch'Yonda into one of the coolest art destinations in Albuquerque.
So far it's been a rewarding but trying experience. Although the project would make an ideal non-profit, Hampton and Willis decided to remain private to avoid the bureaucracy and corporate sponsorship that typically comes with non-profit status. The Alibi recently had a chance to sit down with the ladies to discuss their project, their plans for the future, and the under-appreciated cultural contributions of artists of color here in Albuquerque.
Compared to many American cities, Albuquerque has a small Black population, but Hampton is quick to point out that Blacks have played significant roles in Albuquerque throughout much of the city's history. “Back in the '20s,” she says, “the block between Second and Third used to be called the Black Block because it was lined with Black businesses. The owner of the Gold Street Caffé has some photographs from that period. A lot of African Americans came out here to New Mexico and were fairly enterprising.” Hampton says there's a movement to celebrate these contributions by creating a local African American Museum.
Hampton and Willis are two prime examples of enterprising Blacks who came to New Mexico from other regions of the country to lend their creativity and expertise to our community. They migrated here from the South—Hampton from Virginia and Willis from Tennessee—to attend UNM. Willis earned a master's degree in architecture, and Hampton recently completed her Ph.D. in English. They first met each other when Willis presented an exhibit called Us and Our Art at Mike Certo's [AC]2 art space. The purpose of the show was to showcase art by women of African descent, not all of whom were African American.
“By the time it was all over she had over 25 artists,” says Hampton, “and an incredible array of art of all different kinds—everything from found art to sculpture. There really are a fair number of African Americans here. The community in Albuquerque is really diverse. More than we thought, I think. A lot of African Americans here come with the military, and there are a lot that work at places like Sandia and Intel too. So, we've got the middle class and the working class as well as Black people who are just business people.”
Albuquerque also boasts plenty of African American artists. In one of the Us and Our Art shows, the youngest artist was Virginia's older daughter, who was just six years old at the time. The oldest artist was a 78-year-old woman from New York City. Through these exhibits, Willis and Hampton began making connections in the Black community and beyond. They eventually decided to start a production company called Omnirootz. “As far as theater was concerned,” says Willis, “in general we were mostly interested in having a troupe that was dedicated to doing art by and for people of color.”
“Even within the African American community,” says Hampton, “there are so many different ethnicities. I haven't met any African Americans, for example, that don't have Native American blood as far as I can tell. This is partly because of the situation on the East Coast in the 19th century, in particular the South. A lot of African Americans when they ran away found themselves with Native Americans. They were the people who knew the land the best. Then there are people who come here from the Caribbean and the continent, very important parts of African American culture. So we found out, even among the Albuquerque Black community, there are so many different ethnicities. That's partly why we called ourselves Omnirootz, to be respectful of our own different classes, different colors and different origins.”
Willis takes special pride in Omnirootz' staging of The Shining Town, a play by Harlem Renaissance playwright Owen Vincent Dodson. That production was a perfect example of the kind of ground-breaking work the group has brought to Albuquerque's theater scene. “We did it at the Kimo,” she says, “the year we started bombing Afghanistan. This was just after 9-11. Financially, it was very hard for us. It's impossible for us to fill up that theater with our small community theater projects.”
Artistically, though, the show was a roaring success. “The play was written back in the '30s,” Willis says. “It was about a time when Black women used to go down to the subway stations to auction themselves off to white women for work. It was written as a one-act piece focusing mainly on the dialogue between Black and white women.
“It was only 20 minutes long until we got a hold of it. First, we changed the script to include all ethnicities, especially women of color. We felt like the auctioning flavor, cheap wage, low self-esteem stuff crosses a lot of color lines. We decided that the play was just as relevant today as it was back then. The playwright was just hanging out in the subway station and really got a whiff of all this and was pretty fascinated by it. We took it and re-did the same script three times. We started off setting the play in the present, then we jumped back to the day in which he wrote it, then we scooted up another 65 years.”
Placing the play in the present, past and future opened up all kinds of dramatic and experimental options. “We had costume changes, lighting changes and music changes to build the context up,” says Willis. “We did the exact same script each time. The great thing about that script was the language of it. Ebonics in the '30s. Very poetic, very cool. Among the women of color, we had a woman from India, a Philippina, a Puerto Rican woman, a African-American woman and a Native American visual artist.”
Willis played a woman who stood in the corner, offering to do anything for 10 cents. Several white actors performed in The Shining Town as well. “I think what was most amazing about it,” says Willis, “was at curtain call there was like 30 people on stage. Almost as many as there were in the audience. (laughs) We did a lot of work, and it turned out great. We had to deal with racism, with the fact that there was a war about to happen. Everybody was pretty upset and on edge with the trauma that we were experiencing at the time. So it was a good time to do some community work, some healing amongst ourselves, and support each other. I think The Shining Town was a really good example of everything we're about.”
From the beginning Omnirootz has always prided itself on incorporating live music and other live performance elements into its shows. Since moving into the new space on south Fourth Street, they've gone to even greater lengths to exploit this aspect of their work. “I'm teaching this theater class,” says Hampton, who's a professor at TVI, “and when people talk about music in plays it's always in terms of musicals. But there is plenty of music and dance in plays, in contemporary ones, that aren't musicals. We like to have music and dance, everything, live.”
“In my mind that is our trademark,” says Willis. “We try to cram as much art into theater as we can.”
Omnirootz plays have generally enjoyed warm receptions in Albuquerque, even when the crowds have been kind of skimpy. “It's not about being grandiose for us,” says Willis, “which is why we were OK with renting this space. We only have an occupancy load of 50 here at Out ch'Yonda. If we get 50 people in here, that's great. We're happy. Those are the times we felt successful at the Vortex. If we averaged 45-50 people, that's good. There is definitely a need for Black theater in this city, and we're trying to fill that need.”
Both Willis and Hampton are quick to point out that theater audiences in this town, whether you're talking about the Vortex Theatre, the Tricklock Performance Space, the Albuquerque Little Theatre or the Adobe Theatre, are largely white. An exception is companies like La Compañia, which performs bilingual plays that draw in largely Hispanic audiences. From the beginning Omnirootz has prided itself on reaching out to multi-hued audiences.
“We get the biggest Black crowds,” says Willis, “when we do August Wilson and George Wolfe. We did Wolfe's The Colored Museum and people were happy. Really happy. In all of those productions, the two August Wilson plays we've done and The Colored Museum, people were actually seeing it in L.A and off Broadway in New York, and they were pleased with what we did with it.”
Hampton and Willis envision Out ch'Yonda partly as a forum for fostering a dialogue about social issues in Albuquerque. One example of an event that fosters this kind of dialogue was last month's White History Weeks. Over the course of three weekends, they invited white artists, writers and performers to come to Out ch'Yonda and present work exploring the privileges enjoyed by white Americans in our society. In an attempt to involve the neighborhood, they also present a series of live poetry readings in Spanish.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of witnessing a performance at Out ch'Yonda is the omnipresence of kids. The times I've been there, kids have often crawled out in the middle of the stage during shows, and no one seems to care all that much. This relaxed atmosphere is refreshing. It makes you feel like you're watching theater in someone's home.
Hampton and Willis actually plan to stage some children's theater at Out ch'Yonda in the near future, partly because Barelas kids have been among the first of their neighbors to check out the space.
Financially, they're supporting the project mainly with money from their own pockets. The burden is heavy. Hampton and Willis are asking members of the community to pitch in and help support this important cultural experiment.
There are three ways you can go about doing this. You can donate useful items to Omnirootz and Out ch'Yonda. You can send them an envelope full of cash. You can also just show up and pay the full price of admission. Do all three, and Jesus will love you.
You'll have plenty of opportunities to see great shows at Out ch'Yonda in the coming months and contribute to the cause at the same time. On Thursday, Feb. 19, at 7 p.m., Willis and Hampton will continue their Viva la Revolución Spanish language poetry series with Raices Africanos, a reading focusing on the work by Latino poets of African decent. They're charging $3 to $7 on a sliding scale for this event.
The following week, on Thursday, Feb. 26, at 6 p.m., another group is presenting a carnival fundraiser for Out ch'Yonda, which will feature food, live music, dancing and drumming. Tickets are $10.
Next month, on Sunday, March 14, at 3 p.m., Willis and Hampton will continue their sporadic Sunday afternoon jazz series with a performance by Zimbabwe Nkenya and guests. That's also $10.
Towards the end of March, they want to stage a production of Aishah Rahman's Unfinished Women Cry in No Man's Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage. If they can secure the rights to the play, it'll open on Saturday, March 27, and run for three weekends.
Out ch'Yonda is great for Barelas, and it's great for Albuquerque. If Willis and Hampton don't get the support they need from the community, though, they'll be forced to close shop. That would be a shame. Luckily, that isn't going to happen, since you're going to stuff some bills in an envelope and send it to them, then venture Out ch'Yonda for their next performance.