Outsider History

I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed live theater until I was standing in a field on a hot, steamy July night. I was there for Family Dollar, an immersive play about a rapidly changing neighborhood in West Dallas. The play itself was excellent, but it’s the story behind the play that really got me fired up. It’s a play built on history and preservation.

The “set”–audience members were invited to roam around the houses, and the action continually moved. The only thing we couldn’t do was enter the homes.

Like many areas of Dallas, especially neighborhoods near downtown, people that have lived in small, affordable houses for decades are being forced out in favor of dense, pricey, multi-family options. Artstillery describes itself in this way:

Founded in 2016, Artstillery creates performances centered around issues of racial, cultural, and social injustice. Sometimes a story needs a storyteller, but that starts with listening. Our process begins with research using a combination of community outreach and interviews. We combine these stories with an interdisciplinary artistic approach that creates a ‘total theatre’ experience. Artstillery’s goal is to give a voice to people who feel they have none. 

https://www.artstillery.org/about-us

As the neighborhood started to shift, they hit the streets, interviewing residents and collecting hours upon hours of oral history. They “stole” shotgun houses before they were demolished and rebuilt them on land next to a church. And through all that, they created a powerful play.

One of the small touches I really appreciated were the labels, scattered across the shotgun houses. Another way to share the story.

I attended with colleagues at Readers to Leaders, my first official client. Their offices were just a short drive away, and most of the schools they serve are in West Dallas. I’m not sure that everyone was prepared for this type of theater experience–the stories swirled around you, and you had to make choices about where to listen and where to be. The script is a living document, with new stories added all the time. It’s never the same play twice, for either audience members or the cast.

And just a few days later, I got to attend another play, Committed, based on the stories of women in the 1880s that were committed to insane asylums. I’ve written before about Cry Havoc Theater, a group of teens that are also on the front line of history. Though for this play, they couldn’t interview directly, they relied heavily on memoirs to write this piece. It was another immersive experience with multiple scenes happening at once. However, this time we were pulled directly into the action and asked to listen directly to one woman’s story.

There is always a talk-back with the cast–and people stay! It always adds meaning to the show.

After Family Dollar, I spoke for a few minutes with Ilknur Ozgur, the founder, and a friend. Because I am who I am, I almost immediately asked “where are those oral histories going?” Her reply: “No idea. They’re just on a drive right now.” And then we brainstormed a bit about possible options, because we both know these stories will be invaluable as we work towards telling a more inclusive history of Dallas.

Cry Havoc also has reams of interviews from previous plays about the shooting of police officers in downtown Dallas in 2016, the border crisis, the gun debate, and more. Both these groups are gathering and presenting history–and reaching an audience that most museums can only dream of. Young, diverse, active in the community.

At the moment, there’s not really a local history institution poised to take on the task of collecting and saving the kind of history these two groups are gathering. And there’s not an institution that community members trust enough to care for these deeply personal and powerful stories. But at least the work is being done by someone. With all the work most museums need to do to dismantle internal biases, doing this work outside of formal history organizations may be the only way to start. Perhaps, one day, this outsider history work will lead to a different kind of history institution in Dallas.

Beverages were served in specimen cups. And if you chose white wine, well. . . .

Published by Melissa Prycer

Professional history and museum nerd, among other things. Working to help other small museums however I can. Museum educator and executive director, most recently at Dallas Heritage Village.

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