Sharon Bridgforth Reflects on Home and Helps Artists Move Toward Home Ownership

Centered in African-American artistic and cultural traditions, Sharon Bridgforth’s constantly evolving Creative Capital Project dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/Home supports the creation of spaces that activate communal wisdom and self-determination. Most recently, Sharon heads to Minneapolis at the Pillsbury House + Theatre will premiere dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/The Show June 1-24, 2018. At the same time, she will work with a cohort of seven local emerging artists of color, the City of Lakes Land Trust, and the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association to help the artists move toward home ownership. Sharon told us more about the event and her work with the emerging artists.

We spoke to Sharon Bridgforth about her project.

Alex Teplitzky: dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/Home has been a series of intimate events and performances over the past few years. Can you tell me about those past gatherings?

Sharon Bridgforth: Like most things that I do, it started inside of my own bone marrow and blood memories. I think that at the very beginning I was in reflection about my family history, especially as an African-American child of the great migration. I have six parents because of marriages and divorces. I was keenly aware that they were aging, and I was really appreciating them and reflecting on my journey with them, and as myself as someone aging. I was thinking about home, literally. I was trying to imagine having a home that my wife and I own, something that my parents highly aspired to as people that migrated West from the South. The feeling of wanting to return home to Los Angeles, where I grew up, intensified. I haven’t lived here since 1989.

All of my work is based in a lot of history and research, looking at African-American, particularly Great Migration, stories and histories that contextualize that. I use my own family, who are the best storytellers I have ever experienced, as models for how to shape stories. So, usually there’s a lot of stuff going on. There is dancing, singing, praying, and aspirations and deep intentions all happening at the same time. The living and the dead and the unborn coexisting. I call it making theatrical jazz. I am from a long lineage of theatrical jazz artists.

Somewhere during this process, three of my six parents died. What emerged was this show that I call dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/The Show. The characters wouldn’t stop talking to me, so I decided to make them oracles. I created, with Yasmín Hernández, a visual artist, dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/Oracle Deck.

At the time I was also reflecting on an artist that mentored me, Laurie Carlos, who was the original Woman in Blue in the Broadway version of For Colored Girls. She passed on to me the desire and knowing of how important it is to mentor emerging artists. So, the next thing that emerged was dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/Home Project. The idea was to walk an emerging artist of color through the process of acquiring a home that they could own, in addition to artistic mentorship.

Then, Laurie Carlos died. After she died, things started moving really fast. It became clear that Minneapolis would house the premieres, partially because Laurie lived in St. Paul for a really long time, even though she’s from the Lower East Side. She returned to Minneapolis and the artists there that she mentored took care of her. I have a deep history with the Twin Cities. I’ve been working there regularly since 1994, I consider it one of my home places, though I never moved there—because it’s too cold for too long.
One of the artists that Laurie and I both mentored is Molly Van Avery. Molly is a poet and a housing rights activist. She had been with me since the beginning of all of these ideas, but she officially came on the project as the Minneapolis Project Coordinator. Molly was able to get the City of Lakes Community Land Trust and the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association to join as partners. Powderhorn Park is where Pillsbury House + Theatre, which is the company that’s producing the world premiere is—and it’s one of the neighborhoods I’ve done the most work in. Our partners are going to help us mentor a cohort of emerging artists in gathering the skills and the information to prepare to move towards home-ownership.

We’ll know a lot more in June, but we have selected the cohort. They’ll have one-on-one workshops with the Land Trust and opportunities to engage with the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association. I will start mentoring them in May to create new works, and they will share developmental experiences of these works with the neighborhood.

First rehearsal, table work for dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/The Show world premiere at Pillsbury House Theatre. Left to right: Director Ebony Noelle Golden, dramaturge Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and writer Sharon Bridgforth. Photo credit: Rachel Fettig

Alex: That’s so amazing. So, as I understand it, you’ve incorporated your practice, which recently takes the form as stories and visual art behind dat Black Mermaid Man Lady into this work with housing rights activism for emerging artists because those things go hand in hand. It’s more than just a platform for performance, it’s actually a way of mentoring younger artists. Is that right?

Sharon: Correct. I’ve been a self-employed full-time artist since 1998. Before that I was a community organizer. I worked in social services, specifically with HIV-testing outreach and education. I was trained by artists that used their practice as a vehicle for social justice. It’s in the shape of everything that I do. I feel like it’s such a critical time for all of us in our neighborhoods and in our communities to support one another in being able to make home.

Alex: So, for those who buy tickets to see the show, what will they see when it premieres at Pillsbury House + Theatre?

Sharon: There will be multiple things happening in many locations over a period of time in May and June. The show is one of those things. There will also be an excerpt from dat black Mermaid Man Lady/Performance Installation. That is a project where I’m collaborating with my daughter Sonja Perryman and Walter Kitundu, a 2008 MacArthur Fellow. We are creating together what we’re calling “at the Bottom of the Ocean Living Room Experience.” People will come in and interact with our stories and music, and the pieces that Walter is creating, and they will share their stories and experiences and I will offer Oracle Readings. The Performance Installation will premiere in August/September in Austin, Texas thanks to a queer people of color organization called allgo. In May – in a tiny house in Molly’s back yard in Powderhorn Park—I will offer an excerpt of the Performance Installation that will include some of our music, story sharing, and Oracle Readings.

The Show at Pillsbury House + Theatre, directed by Ebony Noelle Golden; featuring Aimee Bryant, Florinda Bryant, PaviElle French and Kenyai O’Neal ​includes processions, singing, ​storytelling, and altar​ building. ​Audiences will be invited to join in voice and movement, during this ritual, conjuring Love.

Alex: It’s unbelievable how many different cities you’ve lived and worked in!

Sharon: Oh, I’m so fortunate having been a touring artist for so long. I honestly feel like there are multiple cities that are home to me: Minneapolis and Austin, but also Chicago, New York and Brown University have been homes. [laughs] It’s kind of crazy!

Alex: Not many people know about Community Land Trusts (CLTs). Can you talk about your experience working with them?

Sharon: The Land Trust we work with is called City of Lakes Community Land Trust. All of the land trusts are slightly different in how they work. The City of Lakes Community Land Trust has a goal of helping to provide stable housing costs, and to help people of different incomes have housing security. The Land Trust essentially owns the land and leases the land to the home owner. They’re trying to keep homes affordable and stop strip malls and developments like that from taking over communities. The homeowner owns the house, but there are certain things that you can’t do on the land. For instance, it has to remain a home. The ground lease connects the homeowner to the community and to keeping the house permanently affordable by including a resale formula that determines the home’s CLT sale price and the homeowner’s share of the home’s increased value at the time of sale.

Molly acquired her home through the Land Trust without having to put money down, and they gave her money to fix the house up. Because of how they stabilize costs, Molly’s mortgage rate is very low for this beautiful home. The neighborhood is beautiful, has a rich history, is filled with artists and people of color. The Land Trust is trying to keep the neighborhood accessible and rich for people like us.

Alex: Artists are the ones that struggle with home ownership the most. Many artists we connect with don’t even have home ownerships on their vision boards, so to speak, because it feels so out of reach for them. After working on this for so long, what would you say to them?

Sharon: One of the reasons I wanted the Creative Capital Award so badly… I actually applied seven times, and I got it on the seventh try. I started screaming when Lisa Dent called me. She appreciated with me that insanity [laughs]. I was determined, I was going to keep applying until I got it.

One of the reasons I wanted the Award so badly was that I knew that Creative Capital offers not just a significant amount of money to put toward art, but training to figure out how to be entrepreneurs in a successful, sustaining way. I believe artists are entrepreneurs, but very often we don’t have the skills to build our business in a sustainable way. Instead, we go grant to grant, or project to project, and we spend every dime to build our creative vision.

So you build a team, you need your accountant, you need your financial planner, training around budgeting for your life as well as for your project. Creative Capital offers all of that.

The Award actually came at a perfect time because I was in the midst of dreaming about home, for myself and for emerging artists. At the time, I could imagine home-ownership for emerging artists more than I could for myself. Part of it was because in retrospect, I could see at the end of the year that I actually had made money. But I had invested all of my money back in my work, and used my credit cards. I wasn’t managing my money in a way that was buoyant. The paychecks come like a slinky. There are checks in the mail, or the gig that didn’t happen for four months. I had created a cycle of debt. What I could see in retrospect was that it would have been possible for me early on to create a cycle of abundance, and that could have included owning a home. That was a driving force.
The show is so much about my ancestors and their sacrifices. Some of them were able to purchase a home, and some of them weren’t, even though they sacrificed everything with that hope. Part of their hope was that their home would be for generations coming, for me, for my daughter. So those two things are of the same breath.

Creative Capital, and the Doris Duke Award that I received after, changed everything. It made everything much more possible. All of it culminating from the same time happened because it all stems from the same prayer.

dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/Home is a Creative Capital project, supported by the Muriel Pollia Foundation. Read more about Sharon Bridgforth’s dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/Home and purchase tickets. Artist Yasmín Hernández produced the header image of the dat Black Mermaid Man Lady/Oracle Deck by Sharon Bridgforth.