In 2011, an unexpected yes ushered in a 12-year partnership between a scrappy theater upstart and a century-old cultural institution in town.
The theater group, The NOLA Project, needed a home for its upcoming Shakespeare productions, so the group’s artistic director asked the New Orleans Museum of Art if the thespians could perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the museum’s sculpture garden or “Romeo and Juliet” inside the museum’s grand hall. To the theater group’s surprise, the museum OK’d both, beginning the collaboration. From classic dramas to contemporary comedies, more than a decade’s worth of productions drew crowds to NOMA’s grounds.
This partnership died last month when The NOLA Project broke up with the art museum. The theater group and the museum hold different versions of the story, but both agree the rift centers on The NOLA Project’s plan to stage “The Colored Museum,” a play from the 1980s that satirizes Black stereotypes, inside NOMA’s storied halls. In the show, written by the Black queer dramatist George C. Wolfe, the stage is intended to resemble a white-walled gallery, “a starkness befitting a museum where the myths and madness of black/Negro/colored Americans are stored.” The NOLA Project claims NOMA rejected its proposal to perform “The Colored Museum” inside the museum, the first time in the partnership that NOMA did not immediately greenlight a production. A representative for the art museum says NOMA only wanted to postpone the production and “develop programming that would help situate the production” within the museum.
The NOLA Project’s departure follows several instances of controversy at NOMA in recent years, from former employees publicly accusing the museum of having an anti-Black and “plantation-like” workplace culture in the summer of 2020 to the museum’s hiring of a white curator of African art this year. The theater company’s decision was one made on principle, its leadership told Verite News, as The NOLA Project took feedback from former museum staffers and institutional partners who claimed the museum still fosters a stifling workplace environment for some people of color. The decision marked a turning point for The NOLA Project, a company that has spent the past several years actively diversifying its own ensemble, board and plays.
Three years ago, at the height of global protests on racial inequality, the company acknowledged that its membership failed to reflect the diversity — specifically, the Blackness — of New Orleans. The NOLA Project issued a statement promising to fulfill “its duty and mission to represent New Orleans.” The company pledged to do better. By its own metrics, the organization is now more racially diverse.
“The proof is in the pudding,” said Monica Harris, the interim managing director of The NOLA Project. “From myself, the board, the staff, and the ensemble, the people we hire both onstage and behind the scenes — for our technical team, our production team — it’s an extremely different group than what they started with way back in 2005.”
And shedding its affiliation with NOMA might allow the group to go back to its roots of scrappy theater, said Tenaj Jackson, a company member of The NOLA Project. The theater company is holding tight to its mission statement of performing “theater for the bold” — exposing audiences to a wider selection of shows and making theater more accessible for all New Orleanians.
‘It can’t be just white people in the show’
The NOLA Project began as an undergraduate experiment, when a group of friends from New York University’s prestigious acting school came down to New Orleans the summer of 2005. Out of the crowd of budding actors, Andrew Larimer was the only New Orleans native, and he wanted to see more — and different kinds of — theater in his city, such as contemporary plays and modern interpretations of classical works. The group crashed in Larimer’s divorced parents’ homes in Lakeview. AJ Allegra, the group’s former artistic director, remembers it as a summer of “a lot of sleeping bags and a lot of couch surfing.”
Hurricane Katrina hit at the end of the summer, and the following year, the cohort returned to help the city recover “in whatever very, very small way that the arts could,” Allegra said. The two summers of The NOLA Project were so meaningful that the majority of the group returned to New Orleans after graduating college. In those early days, they were like an “indie rock band,” Allegra said, functional one week and dysfunctional the next. “When we first started, I think we were focusing on art for art’s sake,” Larimer said, inspired by ensemble theater groups from the 1930s and “boundary-pushing” contemporary ones.
The NOLA Project was a fledgling ensemble trying to bring cutting-edge theater to New Orleans, but it was a predominantly white ensemble that did not reflect the makeup of the city (Larimer and Allegra, who served consecutively as artistic directors, are both white). Monica Harris, who is Bahamian and Filipino American, began working with The NOLA Project in 2012 as a contracted actor. It was one of the first companies to give her a shot at stage work after she graduated from Loyola University.
“A lot of them were just all friends who happened to go to the same university together,” said Harris, now the interim managing director. She could have “just as easily” created an active collective with her college friends, she said, “except my demographic is a little browner and a little more queer, and theirs was lovely, but white men who wanted to put on plays.”
Eventually, The NOLA Project started to find its footing. The NOMA partnership, which Allegra worked to establish in 2011, gave the company a greater mark of legitimacy, he said. As the theater troupe continued putting on plays — ranging from lesser-known shows like “A Truckload of Ink,” about the sudden upheaval of a New Orleans newspaper, to Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” — it began to garner local and national recognition. The company won an award from the American Theatre Wing, attended national conferences and grew its small staff.
In 2020, things started to change when worldwide protests against racism and police brutality also brought attention to unjust practices within the art and theater worlds. In New Orleans, a group of former NOMA employees formed the collective #DismantleNOMA, accusing the museum of racism and homophobia, and of upholding a “plantation-like culture” in the workplace. In response, the museum released a statement, acknowledging #DismantleNOMA, that pledged to increase diversity on its board, develop an internal task force to increase inclusivity and issue regular progress reports, which it has done. “NOMA is committed to maintaining an inclusive and welcoming work environment for staff and partners,” a museum spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Verite News for this story.
Farther from the public eye, The NOLA Project held a series of internal conversations about the group’s own equity and diversity shortcomings. It was then, Harris said, that the group began taking a harder look at itself.
“If we’re going to say we are The ‘NOLA’ Project, then it can’t be just white people in the show,” Jackson said. “It can’t be a boys club, it can’t be a people-that-aren’t-from-the-city club.”
The “necessarily uncomfortable” conversations, as Allegra described them, resulted in a community statement that outlined the group’s goals, including future diversity benchmarks. “To our collective guilt and shame, in a city made up of 60% people of color, our organizational makeup and our work selection have been overwhelmingly white… Our organization has been complicit in perpetuating systemic racism within the arts, and we very much need to change that,” the statement reads.
There were three pillars that the group sought to address: the actors in its plays, the members of its board and the writers behind the shows.
One year later, The NOLA Project had documented tangible progress. People of color now comprised nearly half of their ensemble, up from a quarter in August 2020. All three of the productions during their 2021-2022 season were written, in full or in part, by Black artists. In its most recent season, half of the shows were written by Black authors, including “White” by James Ijames, a dark comedy about a disgruntled white artist who hires a Black actress to pose as him so his work can be featured in an exhibit for artists of color. Its board is still majority-white, but it includes one Black New Orleanian and more women than men.
The beginning of this transition felt thornier than it does now, Harris and Jackson both said, an effort of trial and error. Initially, the group conversations forced the company’s leadership out of their comfort zone. “Now, I think it is happening more organically,” Jackson said. ”People feel comfortable within the organization saying, ‘No, I think we should probably lean more this way,’ or like, ‘Why don’t we try this instead of that?’”
Larimer admits that in the group’s early days, The NOLA Project could have engaged more deeply with the city’s Black community. “When we first started, I think we were focusing on art for art’s sake,” he said. “Over time, I think what we’ve seen is the organization deepen its roots and connections to other artists in New Orleans, and to situate that work more deeply within the city and its history.”
Putting on plays without NOMA, its institutional partner of the last decade, offers The NOLA Project the opportunity to find new venues that may be more accessible for more audiences, group members said.
After all, venues and audiences are connected, Larimer said. A venue that feels unwelcoming to some members of the community can prevent well-intentioned efforts to expand the reach of productions.
Jen Williams, a member of #DismantleNOMA who spoke with The NOLA Project, applauded the group’s recent decision to split from the art museum. Williams herself hasn’t set foot in the museum since she herself resigned from her position as public programs manager in 2020. “There are people who probably just don’t want to go [to NOMA] and there are people who want to be in solidarity with those folks who don’t want to go,” Williams said.
But theater venues in the city are also scarce. From a practical standpoint, Larimer said, the split from NOMA might be a risky move.
Still, Harris expressed excitement about The NOLA Project’s NOMA-less future. “I want to be able to find what we look like outside of that dynamic again, because there was a The NOLA Project before,” she said. “There can be one after.”
Members of The NOLA Project expressed certainty that the company will perform “The Colored Museum” soon, though they haven’t publicly shared the details of when or where yet.
“We get to go back to the roots of actually doing theater that’s just good, without any fluff, without the guise of ‘Oh, this beautiful building, the architecture,’” Jackson said. Instead, she explained, they’ll rely on moving audiences through their artistry alone.
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