Anu Yadav on Outsider Politics, Activist Theater, and Her Show 'Capers

Anu Yadav
wants to start a conversation about economic inequality in America. Her one-woman show, ‘Capers, will be coming to the Phoenix Center for the Arts later this month as part of ASU’s Performance in the Borderlands series. 

Capers focuses on the experience of residents at the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg Public Housing Projects in Washington D.C. (known colloquially as “Capers”). In 2001, the city was awarded a governmental grant to demolish and reconstruct the development as mixed-income housing. Hundreds of families were displaced and relocated as a result of this decision; Yadav’s play tells their stories, as well as those of the government officials guiding the decision to demolish.

Local co-producers Qosmic Qadence and Channel Powe hope the performance’s themes of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic oppression will resonate with Phoenix residents. Qadence notes, “Without an outcry, how will we ever have a conversation about gentrification in Arizona? We’re excited to get the word out and bring the community in for the rid and the conversation, so that we can grow as a community together, so that we can eradicate the effects of gentrification in the state as best we can.” Powe says that she was inspired to bring the show to Phoenix out of a desire to build community. “There was no way I could turn it down. There was no way I could not be a part of this. There was no way that this could not be weaved into the fabric of the community to make sure that we are amplifying the message. This is a community event; it’s a way to bridge the gap, to bring us all together, to raise awareness and feel moved to act.”

New Times caught up with Yadav by phone to learn more about the process, challenges, and inspiration behind creating ‘Capers.

Tell us a little bit about your background – how did you get interested in doing activist theater?
I graduated from college with a degree in history. I’ve always enjoyed theater, loved it, but more and more I was starting to get really frustrated by the lack of roles and with stories that didn’t really resonate with me. I didn’t feel like [theater] really represented stories I connected to. Out of anger, out of not seeing myself and people I connected to, I started to write. It started with more autobiographical, shorter pieces. I started learning more about the work of Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Jones, who are solo artists who take on other characters in telling the story of community.

I got a Watson fellowship, where I got the chance to study theater towards social change in India, Brazil, and South Africa. I studied with Augusto Boal, who, before he died, founded the concept of Theater of the Oppressed, which is about people from communities sharing their stories and having audiences decide how we solve a social problem, whatever that problem might be. I had just come back from that amazing fellowship and had a job in public radio, and wanted to do what I was really passionate about which was theater, political theater. I got involved with the [Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg Public Housing Project] and started working with a group called Friends and Residents of Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg, which was protesting the demolition.

What is ‘Capers? What was your goal in creating the piece?

Capers is the result - and one manifestation - of many different interventions or projects or ideas that were tried out by me and other people, particularly around political theater with youth. The community experiencing a lot of disruption because of the demolition, people were being moved out in phases. One of the things I thought I could contribute and follow through on was to organize my own body - my single body - to take on the stories of residents (with their permission). I put it together in a solo piece where I played all the characters. [The play] could be mobile, and it could support the mobilizing efforts of the neighborhood. It wound up becoming the basis of a documentary called Chocolate City. I started performing it in different places.

I’ve always been really interested in people’s stories and how we negotiate the different social oppressions that we face as individuals within this larger society. For me, I feel like art has a really beautiful opportunity to put in the spotlight the stories of people who are institutionally pushed out of public discourse.

What were some of the specific experiences that drove you to create this play and do this work?
There were a lot of different community meetings [during the process of relocating the Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg Housing Project]. I was working primarily in two ways. One was with the organizing group, Friends and Residents of Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg, helping with petitions and flyers and fact sheets, knocking on doors, helping make signs. The other was with the young people in the neighborhood, who usually went to the Recreation Center, before it got torn down.

There were nine youths involved, all between the ages of eight to thirteen or fourteen. We were creating a theater piece. At one point, there was a community meeting and one of the people who had been identified as a public target, Michael Kelly (former director of the Washington, D.C. Housing Authority), there was talk that he was going to be at this meeting. He was a stakeholder, he had the ability to affect change. [We thought] if we could talk to him, maybe something could change for the better for the community. We asked [the kids] what they wanted to say to Mr. Kelly, what they might want to say to the Housing Authority, to the State. When the kids found out that he was going to be at the meeting, they said, “let’s go talk to him.” We had this dance, we came up with a chant, and we went to go talk to him.

We went [to the meeting] and basically what happened was that some of the adults that I didn’t know got really scared and started to threaten the children. They started telling them, “we’re going to arrest you, you can‘t be here, why are you here?” It was very intense and scary for all of us, including me. We all got kicked out of the building while Mr. Kelly was there, and locked out. But the young people I was with refused to leave. We went outside and stayed outside and waited until Mr. Kelly came out so we could talk to him. [The kids] wanted to show him their dance, and sing him their song, and engage him in an artistic way and political way, and ask him why they had to move. They got the chance to sing and dance, and they did talk to him, but I don’t think he really knew how to respond. He was trying to tell them that was a nice artistic piece they created, but they were really trying to engage him in a conversation. It was a very disappointing feeling of betrayal, and at that point the core center of youth leadership lost interest in doing a play. My sense was that they were let down by the adults, and were dismissed. They really catapulted and pushed forward the organizing in the community by the adults, but in this moment, they experienced a loss.

It was a disappointing moment for me as a youth worker. I still kept working at the Rec Center, but it was a different group. The core youth leadership just kind of stopped coming. Even though that moment was a moment that had a lot of politics and problems going on, everyone will agree that it was the young people in the community that set a fire for the adults and for change to happen.

How did you integrate the Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg Community into your work?
I really strove for integrity in making this piece, and having an Advisory Board made a difference. There was moment where I was going to include drugs and the theme of addiction in [the play], but residents said “absolutely not, people are going to have all these stereotypes about our community.” I said, “Here’s a draft that I have, I’m going to let you review it.” I performed it for the advisory group, and they said that was the best version yet. I included it. They didn’t want it to be in the play, but that was before they saw how I did it. Once they saw it there was a total reversal.

I also talked with a lot of other people and youths. If there were scenes that were based on certain people’s experiences, I would come back to those people and ask them [if they approved of the representation]. At the end, I wound up doing a performance of a workshop of [‘Capers] at the community center when they were in phase 3 of the demolition or relocation process. So there were not as many people there.

[Housing Authority Director Michael Kelly] was generous with his time to me. We met at different times so I could speak with him. Everything he says in the play is stuff that he said to me in a series of interviews.

How has this piece impacted you as an artist? Has it changed over the course of a decade?

I’ve thought a lot about this. I had my own development as an artist - whose stories are mine to tell? What are the politics of representation and identity? How do you transcend and transgress these boundaries and acknowledge your position? Are you fixing certain “-isms”? Where do you benefit? Whether you’re a journalist or an artist or a public service worker, all of those questions are important to keep asking yourself. Where are we going?

What has been the impact of relocation on some of the people who helped craft the play?
The Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg Public Housing Projects are a series of buildings in a particular area down by the naval yard in Washington, D.C. Roughly 400 families lived in that area. They relocated everybody, tore it down, and then rebuilt it as mixed-income housing. That automatically meant that very few people were going to make it.

The official story that [Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams] has told is that he is very proud of the fact that he and his administration came up with a one-to-one [system for the Capper / Carrollsburg Public Housing Projects] — every unit torn down was rebuilt elsewhere. That was something that the residents won, in part.

[After the conversion to mixed-income housing, the former residents] really called [Mayor Williams] out on what “low-income” meant. It meant that if a household made up to $60,000 per year. At the time, the average income in the area was about $8,000. There were a lot of people on disability [living at Arthur Capper / Carrollsburg]. With the wages they earned, they could be cherry-picked out of coming back. They imposed credit checks, etc. There were a lot of hurdles that the organizing group fought for. If it hadn’t been for the organizing group, absolutely zero residents would have been able to come back.

The challenge of displacement, and part of the Hurt, is that these buildings get torn down and the people who live there don’t matter. It’s an erasure of culture and stories. Part of what the play serves as now, 10 years later, is a way to bear witness to the stories of people who lived in this neighborhood, some of whom are still fighting to come back. There’s a very strong community; every year, the [current and former residents] get together for the Fourth of July. There’s a strong sense of community from people who live there, despite the displacement.

What do you think is the biggest takeaway message of the show?
When I originally did it, I, as well as a number of the people I worked with, felt like there was a big silence about this. Part of the purpose of the play was to break a larger silence around the impact of development on families, on people, due to how much money you have. It was a way to show the human cost. And in a way, I guess a purpose of it at the time (which changed and warped as the organizing changed) was to then galvanize. You get an audience, you show this play, people are moved, they have feelings, they’re left wanting to act and not knowing how. I think in part the purpose of the play was to then say, “Okay, here are some things you can do, here are these communities and organizing groups you can help with. You can do something to help change and support these practices so they are more human.” That makes sense to everybody in a community, not just certain people based on how much money they have.

What personal experience do you have that has contributed to your interest in this cause? How does the play explore themes of social and ethnic identity?

I’m a South Asian woman. I was born and raised in Iowa. I don’t claim to be a native Washingtonian, but I’ve come to love D.C. Coming to this community, it was very clear that I was and am an outsider. There are different references I’m not going to get, there are nuances. Navigating the politics of that as an Outsider, there are a number of questions that I need to continually ask myself in order to make a product with integrity that is free of bias. I need to address anything that might be unconscious. These stories have to be told, and as an artist who does solo work, I knew I could offer and follow through on that in a high quality way.

I stopped performing the play because I felt like I needed to reflect on some things for myself - what is my responsibility, what stories make sense for me to tell, what stories should I support others to tell as an artist? Am I running away from my “own community?” Why am I telling these stories as opposed to another set of stories?

[I wanted to] do some self-reflection, not wanting to participate in some larger exploitation of stories of, about, and by black people. Any marginalized community has been exploited by people who can come in, leave, set the narrative agenda, and then profit and benefit from it. I started asking myself these questions, so I stopped performing [‘Capers].

What’s fascinating is that 10 years later, doing this same piece, there are a lot of people not living in public housing who can’t afford to live in D.C., and a lot of my friends who are artists, who are low-income, who work in various fields, are slowly but surely being pushed out from the City center because they just can’t afford it. I think this story [isn’t limited] to only this community – it’s a broader story of what’s happening, of larger trends affecting not just people in the United States, but all over the word, with this hugely increasing gap of wealth. I feel it. I feel like even when I was rehearsing, I was relating to this piece in a totally different way than I did ten years ago. It hit home in a “right in my heart” kind of way, because it felt in many ways like it was part of my own story. It’s not the exact same story, I don’t want to claim that it is, but it felt like there were parts of it that were also my story of displacement.

I think if we are really to galvanize a broad-based social movement to change things, so that everybody has access to basic human rights, we will have to look at how we are divided, pitted against each other, how different communities are separated. We’ll really have to look at what we have in common.

What’s next for you?
I co-founded a group called “Classlines,” which included one of the people from the Arthur Capper neighborhood, too, where we all got to share our own stories related to wealth and poverty. It’s something we’re thinking to tour as a piece that is not just a performance, but a performance and an in-depth workshop with participants, where they get to share their own stories about something that is hugely silenced in the United States – income, socioeconomic class and status. How do you create an environment where people on many sides can speak openly, honestly, lovingly about it? How we can have each other, despite how we get pushed away?

Since then I also created another solo play that’s more fictional. Going through this period of economic crisis that I’ve been going through, this displacement has really got me reflecting on the realities that I grew up with as a child. This label of “middle class” actually did a disservice to the experience that I had growing up, particularly around the notion of economic instability. So I created another play about a girl whose mom can’t afford the medicine she needs. I’ll be doing that play [titled Meena's Dream] in Phoenix in November at the ASU Kerr Cultural Center. 

I’m really interested in how to talk about really hard things that are important and super relevant in our lives, but in ways that allow people the space to reflect and not just get sunk. So that we can leave the theater space remembering our Wholeness and our Humanity in a way that’s a little different than when we came in.

Anu Yadav will be performing 'Capers on Tuesday, July 21, at Phoenix Center for the Arts' Main Stage. The show will begin at 6:30 pm, with a moderated panel discussion to follow. Tickets are free for children under the age of 18 and $7 for adults. 

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Contact: Zaida Dedolph