The Commons Residency and Festival at Carolina Performing Arts is an initiative devoted to supporting artists by fostering a local creative community in and around the Triangle. In June 2019, Carolina Performing Arts hosted a festival in which writers were paired with resident artists in the CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio to generate unconventional arts criticism.

The writers were embedded in the artistic process, attending rehearsals and engaging in sustained dialogue with the performing artists. This new model of criticism was based in mutual understanding and shared process, rather than coverage based on evaluation of one performance. We discovered last year that this new model was rich with possibilities. The focus on bringing both artists and writers to the table enhanced the connections among otherwise disparate areas of the Triangle arts community.

A “commons” can be defined as “land or resources belonging to or affecting the whole of a community.” In an ideal community, each member contributes resources to a shared pool; these pooled resources, in turn, benefit each individual. This year’s “Digital Commons” strengthens the performing arts activities of the Triangle area as a site of community, discussion, hospitality, and process.

This year, CPA wanted to bring the Commons back as part of our reimagined 20/21 season, so we reconceived the festival to work in a digital format. By presenting these works online, we are digging into the conversations that shape the Triangle’s artistic landscape, guided by UNC’s safety protocols and industry best practices, and expanding our audiences. Over six weeks, each of the four Commons artists-in-residence has spent time creating new performance work in CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio, supported by CPA staff.

These artists were chosen through an open call juried by UNC faculty and local arts leaders. We worked with Lana Garland, Executive Producer of Insibah Media and Festival Director and Curator of the Hayti Heritage Film Festival, to pair each artist with a videographer to collaborate on producing a film of the performed works in process, which we will stream over four weeks, each weekend from January 29th through February 20th. In partnership with INDY Week, we also matched each artist with an arts writer who will write thoughtful, experimental artist profiles and criticism that will appear here on The Commons Crit.

In 20/21, the Commons features the work of a young cohort of Black artists based across the Triangle. The themes they address are politically urgent. Anthony “AyJaye” Nelson, Jr. choreographs a solo work that explores personalized awareness of trauma, emotional growth, and healing. Ayanna Albertson stages a spoken word poem about the way that generational trauma cultivates interpersonal violence. Eternal the M.C. imagines dialogue about police violence at an intergenerational family gathering, told through music. Through spoken word and music, Johnny Lee Chapman, III takes the audience on a narrative tour of North Carolina, voicing the stories of how inequality structures the history of the state.

Videographers Wo Agbaza and Devonte Soileau are collaborating with these artists to create films for digital streaming. In this special online section of INDY Week, literary and hip-hop scholar (and frequent INDY contributor) Kyesha Jennings will write about Albertson and Eternal the M.C.’s new work. Playwright and arts educator Howard Craft will write about the work of Nelson and Chapman.

During their residencies, these artists have continued their ongoing dialogue developed in spaces throughout the Triangle. Anthony Nelson, Jr. and Johnny Lee Chapman, III, for example, have both been featured in The Black On Black Project, an artist-led initiative that fosters conversation around identity and social justice. Kyesha Jennings highlighted the work of Eternal the M.C. in a column published last summer in the INDY on North Carolina hip-hop artists. The Commons residency offers further opportunity for these artists, writers, and videographers—many of whom are already connected—to develop work alongside their peers and mentors.

Rooted in radical Black art-making traditions, these performances articulate systemic injustice, speak truth to power, and create spaces of healing by forging connections to wider communities. In a year marked by a pandemic that has exposed widespread structural inequalities, we have continued to witness violence against black and brown bodies.

As we reflect on what is important to us and the urgency of this time, The Commons is offering a space where artists, art critics, and audiences can come together to voice calls for resistance and reckoning and to imagine what a more equitable future can hold. 

Lauren DiGiulio is the Andrew W. Mellon DisTIL Postdoctoral Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts. Christopher “Dasan Ahanu” Massenburg is the Rothwell Mellon Program Director for Creative Futures at Carolina Performing Arts and Visiting Lecturer in the Music Department at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A note on ethics: The INDY had no role in selecting in the artists included in The Commons, though it did help to select the writers. The writers are being paid for their work via CPA. Neither the INDY nor interim arts editor Sarah Edwards received compensation of any kind for hosting The Commons Crit, and the project will not influence our regular coverage decisions regarding CPA.

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