Poetry / Stills

‘Capitalism and art don’t always agree’


A documentary poem compiled from conversations with Loren Niemi and Sandy Spieler of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis and Claribel Gross of Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. Both are independent nonprofit theaters with a focus on social justice.

The first thing you need is love, the most basic thing.
And then you need all of the nourishing things:
Good water, healthy air, food, shelter.
A right to name and a right to your personal freedom.

The things that have been named in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, that the United States
has never signed, by the way.

A sense of self and a sense of community,
to recognize what story we’re living.

Support and ensemble.
Nobody lives on an island—
no one’s alone.

Art is a mechanism to bring people together.
Theater is a mechanism to bring people together
for the common good.

When you take the inanimate,
when you take paper mache and paint,
give it shape and form and movement,
play with the scale of it,
it becomes a very large metaphor,
a very large carrier of meaning.
It allows a rock, or bacteria, or birds to speak.
It allows the whole of creation to speak.

When you make excellent art,
by African Americans, for African Americans,
the community can come in and hear stories
and listen to voices and faces
that look like themselves.

The mythical Sankofa bird of West Africa
on our wall is moving forward, but looking back.
It represents knowing where you came from
in order to move forward.
You take your history with you.

Art is not separate from life.
It’s part of everything.
As human beings, we are constantly in the process
of altering the vast chaos of input, to make sense of it.
The very act of ordering one’s humanity
is a creative expression.

Art cannot be made,
there’s no reason for art,
unless there’s a common goal and somebody to view it.
Somebody’s voice needs to be heard—
and everybody has something to say.
Then there’s got to be somebody to view it,
understand it, empathize with it
or even walk away from it, but art wouldn’t exist
if it wasn’t necessary.

The Avalon Theatre was a movie theatre,
then a porn theater. When we took it over,
the marquee said, ‘Goodbye Porn, Hello Puppets.’
It was a dump, but the fact that we were here,
that we opened the door, meant kids could come in.
Then came the Mercado across the street,
the Plaza Verde next door. The mural on the other end of the block.
That mural wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t been here.

It’s always been in this location
next to the Martin Luther King Community Center,
but last year Penumbra almost had to shut its doors.
We would’ve lost the funding to survive, to pay people,
but we would’ve still made art.
Capitalism and art don’t always agree with each other,
but that doesn’t mean people would stop telling stories
or would stop creating. There’s always a way.
When a group of people comes together
with a common goal or an idea,
they automatically create a space.
It’s a sacred space, and you push forward.

Art is a human right.
A human right is something
we would all wish for ourselves
and therefore should extend to others.
A human right is something that people need
or they will not be healthy.
A human right is a basic given
that humans need to exist in the world with each other.
We are all responsible.
We are.
We ourselves, as humans.

I am not of the mind that I can give you a right
or that I can take it away.
You have the right; you hold the right.
It’s yours, it’s mine, it’s everybody’s.
But the concept has been so commodified.
Governments can’t give or take a right.
But they do.
But that’s not what it should be.

We give ourselves our rights.
We manage to secure them
by the dint of our willingness.


This piece is from a project entitled That’s Survival to Me: Questions About Our Right to Creative Expression, created by students from HECUA: Writing for Social Change 2013 and Works Progress.



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