Life Stories, Grassroots Activism, Theatrical Performance

Faye Harrison
2007 AAA Program Chair

In April’s column I mentioned the possibility of the AAA Executive Program Committee devoting a small portion of the meeting’s program, in the contexts of both scientific sessions and special events, to performance—as the focus of anthropological analysis and as the site of an anthropological audience being engaged by a provocative and talented solo-artist play. On Saturday, December 1, from 8:00–9:30 pm, playwright and actor Anu Yadav will perform an excerpt from her one-woman play, Capers, at the annual meeting. Afterwards, she will entertain questions from the audience and discuss the procedures she employed to write the play and perform it within a social change and human rights framework.

Yadav, an award-winning writer, educator and performer, was born in Iowa and raised in Kansas by parents who emigrated from India. She is an alumna of Bryn Mawr College and a former Thomas J Watson Fellow who has studied the techniques of street and political theater in India, South Africa and Brazil. Committed to a tradition of theatrical performance oriented toward social change, Yadav developed the dozen or so composite characters in “Capers” from the stories of families living in the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg projects in SE Washington DC’s Anacostia neighborhood. Called simply “Capers” by its residents, the community has been targeted for redevelopment by the Washington DC Housing Authority and real estate developers.

Anu Yadav will be performing Capers on Saturday, December 1, 8–9 pm, at the AAA Annual Meeting in Washington DC.

The political, economic and demographic processes that are changing this local urban landscape and dislocating 400 families and 300 senior citizens are related to the planning and implementation of Hope VI, a federal grant program that a number of anthropologists have investigated in different parts of the country. In fact, the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) 2007 meeting in Tampa this past spring featured an informative session on Hope VI in that city. Susan Greenbaum and Cheryl Rodriguez of the University of South Florida took a bus load of anthropologists, myself included, on a guided tour to historically significant sites in Tampa’s urban renewal districts. There was even a stop at the Martí-Maceo Society Clubhouse for a delightful taste of Afro-Cuban hospitality.

In response to Hope VI’s plan to demolish Capers’ 707 units, Friends and Residents of Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg was founded in 1999. The neighborhood watchdog organization aims to protect the rights of residents in the relocation process. The organization is especially concerned with the right of displaced residents to return to the new housing units. According to the urban redevelopment plan, the renewed community will comprise mixed-income units, in which the number of low income families will be limited.

Friends and Residents demand that “the same number of low income units [that are demolished] be rebuilt. The current plan only allows for 140 units of low income housing to be built.” They view this as a violation of their human rights to affordable housing. Friends and Residents, along with allied organizations such as University of the Poor, Human Rights Tech and Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, is advocating for affordable housing and resisting the gentrification that is the likely outcome of federal (and local) policy.

In 2002 Anu Yadav became involved in Friends and Residents as a volunteer member. She helped in the organizing work as well as taught a children’s creative writing class at the local recreation center. In the midst of working with children, whose poetry, short stories and novels indexed the anxieties and struggles of their families, she came up with the idea of documenting and interpreting the community’s struggle to remain intact in spite of Hope VI.

With the rich material she collected from three years of interviews and interactions (undertaken in fieldwork similar to ethnographic research), she wrote a play around the voices and experiences of nearly a dozen composite characters who collectively tell the story of the grassroots struggle to save Capers. The play highlights the lived experiences of three women—a drug addict with socially redeeming qualities, a single mother who works two jobs to support her children and a grandmother raising her grandchildren in the projects. These women and their children are among the grassroots people who mobilize for their rights to housing and the benefits of community life.

Solo artist Yadav depicts all of these characters as well as the voices of the Housing Authority. Although she works in a style similar to that of Eric Bogosian, Anna Deveare Smith and Sarah Jones, unlike these important precedent-setting solo performers, Yadav does not tell the Capers story in a simple series of monologues. Her multiple characters engage each other in dialogue, which is a major challenge for a solo actor. Yadav, however, rises to the challenge and in the process blurring the boundaries separating theater from social documentation and activism.

Anu Yadav has gained public acknowledgment for her talents and convictions. In 2006 she was recognized as an Outstanding Emerging Artist at the Mayor’s Arts Awards program. Her performance on December 1 will be one of the highlights of this year’s annual meeting. We encourage everyone with interests in urban problems, public policy, human rights, grassroots politics and activist theater to join us in this opportunity to learn from Yadav’s play and take part in a lively discussion with her and community representatives from Capers’ Friends and Residents.