On the surface, a five-movement experimental opera set in various New Orleans neighborhoods called “Ecohybridity” doesn’t present as the most accessible form of theatre.
But creator Kai Barrow, a Durham, North Carolina, transplant to New Orleans, says the so-called "visual opera" will resonate with disenfranchised people of color who birthed much of what we love about New Orleans yet remain the city's most neglected residents.
“Opera was originally a people’s form that would go from community to community. It was a way to articulate what was going on through art. But somewhere along the line, it became an elitist form, and poor people of color were locked out of the medium,” she explains over a crackling phone line from New Orleans. “But our conditioning right now, how we’re managing to exist, is opera in its largest sense. It’s comedy, it’s tragedy, it’s all of these different parts.”
“Ecohybridity" springs from Barrow's experiences with eviction in Durham. That dislocation was made more resonant in post-Katrina New Orleans, where her Gallery of the Streets provides space for highlighting artists of color.
While organizers call “Ecohybridity” an opera, the show is much more immersive and fluid. It incorporates contemporary music, paintings and the open canvas of New Orleans. It's Afrofuturist in its presentation but classic at its core.
Take a look at the cast of characters and you’ll get a sense of how the show is creating something new. One character, named Madame Sankofa (The People’s Diva), requires the performer to channel Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Laurie Anderson and Lauryn Hill. Another, O.G. Falcon (The Butch of the Ashes) is rooted in Bessie Smith and the Sex Pistols, among others. These more contemporary influences ground the opera in something relatable despite the high-mindedness of the concept.
All of this is couched in Barrow’s and her colleagues’ tacit understanding of what it means to be contemporary black creatives (particularly as black women) in New Orleans, to deal with the pressures of municipal and cultural exploitation.
“I think all of us are pretty aware of how the city of New Orleans is exploiting our work for tourism. Tourism is higher than its ever been, and a lot of the traditional arts communities here are barely hanging on," says Barrow. "Folks are really being squeezed out, and we’re linking our work aesthetically and materially to have a picture of our place in this broader movement—gentrification on one hand, and institutional bodies that are coming in on the other.”
Adds S. Mandisa Moore-O'Neal, a New Orleans native and an "Echohybridity" writer and performer: "Right now is such a tender time for so many of us in the Gulf who have roots and history in this place," she says. "As a local black feminist, rebuilding and resistance looks like rendering ourselves visible over these last 10 years and well before. [It means] telling the complex stories of black women and girls—trans and not-trans, of course—on our terms, in our voices."
"Ecohybridity” begins tonight at 7 p.m. at Indigo House at the Joan Mitchell Center. Visit galleryofthestreets.org for the full schedule, and click here to see a livestream.