Monét Noelle Marshall’s presence in a room is always felt. She moves through spaces fluidly, with a calm spirit of humility and wisdom. Even when she is seemingly alone, she stands as ten thousand, as Maya Angelou would say.
“This is more than Monét getting an award,” she says. “There are so many people that, because they exist, I’m able to exist, make, and do.” She means her family, friends, and frequent collaborators—people like Derrick Beasley, whose real title in her shows, she says, should be “Monét calls me and I show up.”
Marshall’s work spans many mediums and genres: community art experiences, choreography and dance, and bringing stories to life through the pen and on stage. Her artistry even comes forth in a simple conversation. The poetry in her words, her unique sense of style, and her bold ideas embody the essence of what it means to be an artist.
“I really feel like I didn’t have a choice [but] to be an artist,” says Marshall, whose mother—the playwright, choreographer, and director Robin Carmon Marshall—is one of her biggest inspirations. “My mother led a dance ministry at a church in New York, and she was the leader of thirty to forty women. One night, for rehearsal, she came in and washed all their feet. It had a really deep impact on how I thought about leadership.”
Years later, in 2013, Marshall founded MOJOAA Performing Arts Company with her family. Her mother co-directs; her dad serves as a producer, actor, and playwright; and her brothers give support onstage and backstage. MOJOAA was created in response to the lack of Black theater companies in the Triangle. It became a steward of history through interactive storytelling. Escape to Freedom is its annual immersive experience at Mordecai Historic Park, the largest former plantation in Wake County. It takes audiences on the journey to escape slavery during the Antebellum period.
Marshall learned early that art exists in community and should not just be saved for exhibitions and museums.
“Church is not the building, it’s the people. I want our arts institutions to move the same,” she says. “I care less about the painting or the show. What did it do for the people? If the answer is nothing, then what is actually the point of it?”
The use of art to create shared space is a thread through all of Marshall’s projects, including this year’s “Buy It Call It” performance installations. The trilogy is Marshall’s response to the systemic oppression Black artists encounter in the art world, the toll of capitalism on their minds and bodies, and the process of reclaiming one’s holiness and self-worth.
Creating three experimental performances that challenged white supremacy in art spaces was a bold decision, resulting in necessary honest dialogue.
“Her organizing and interdisciplinary performance work demand that people unpack how patriarchy and anti-Blackness show up in their public and private selves,” says Jamaica Gilmer, a friend and mentor.
After exploring arts institutions’ commodification of Black art in Buy My Soul and Call It Art, then revealing the impact of racial trauma and shame on her body in Buy My Body and Call It a Ticket, Marshall moved even further beyond traditional staged performance in Buy My Art and Call It Holy, which is ongoing this week (see last week’s INDY). A ten-day experience for communities to connect in freedom, movement, and authenticity, its main space at the former Old Havana Sandwich Shop is built to feel like home—or, as Marshall told us, her future kitchen as a queer Black grandma who serves you freshly baked bread and tea.
“I think if the work connects people to themselves, to one another, and serves our community better, then we won,” Marshall says. She wants you to feel at ease, surrounded by soft lighting, cozy couches, and books that are considered holy texts, many written by Black women. This reflects the many years Marshall sat at her own grandmother’s kitchen table.
“There was always someone listening to me,” Marshall says. “I never felt that what I said didn’t matter. That shaped me.”
The authentic fellowship of the kitchen table or front porch is also the foundation of Marshall’s approach as an artist and creative consultant. The old-school lessons of community-building that she learned from her grandmothers’ generation are guiding principles in how she addresses equity in arts institutions.
“My arts and consulting practices are married to one another, and I really think there are some old ways of being that we need to bring back: just coming to sit on your porch and talk to you before I need anything from you,” Marshall says.
This year, Marshall became director of programming at VAE Raleigh—and the first Black staff member in the arts nonprofit’s history. Her primary job is to create events around VAE exhibits and foster intentional relationships through art, especially with communities that often feel neglected by arts institutions.
“Monét has been the perfect addition to the VAE family,” says Brandon Cordrey, VAE’s executive director. “She heightens our staff’s awareness of self-care in a nonprofit culture that often values working yourself to the bone. She brings a lot of love and joy to the work we do, and a genuine and community-oriented focus.”
“I think in our art spaces, sometimes we can be seduced into the notion that we are inherently liberal, inclusive, and accepting, as if there are not symbols and messages that show people they are not welcomed in our spaces,” Marshall says. “When you walk into the average arts space, the walls are white, it’s quiet, and you are not supposed to touch anything. If you are someone from the outside, no matter your race—if that’s not a world that you are used to, then it can feel off-putting.”
Marshall aims to break through silos that form in the art community, whether because of location, race, or socioeconomic factors.
“I want folks to know that VAE is a home for their ideas. The way that we are holding this definition of art is so broad it includes them, no matter who they are,” Marshall says.
As a queer Black woman artist, Marshall speaks from personal experience, knowing what it feels like to be ignored by arts institutions and museums. In part, she’s doing this for her younger self.
“Creating this type of work is deeply personal, vulnerable, and transparent,” she says. “Growing up, I was really looking for someone like me. Now that I’m older and I’m able to make work, the thing that I most have is my truth. I know that there are similar worlds existing in other folks’ heads. And I want us to find each other and create a space for those young Black folks, folks of color, the little queer babies who say, ‘I didn’t know anyone like me existed.’”
Marshall’s impact in community and art spaces has been felt by many.
“Monét is such an important and vital presence in our community,” says JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, another Indies Arts Awards winner. “She is creating art that truly defies convention or easy categorization. She is breaking down barriers and defining on her own what it means to be a theater artist. This work is not for the theater critics or any antiqued idea of patrons—it’s for her, it’s for healing and our community. She has compelled us all to think about decolonizing our art and rethinking antiquated ideas of storytelling.”
“For me, love is at the crux of it,” Marshall says. “I do this because I love you. Whether that ‘you’ was myself or whether that ‘you’ was my family, friends, or my world. I do this because I love you, and the art is the tool in that.”