Peace Garden partners with local theater for a community rejuvenation project

GROWING THE ARTS: "If the kids want to play basketball, they can go to that court over there, but what if they want to be a theater major or artist or performer?” asks Hood Huggers International co-founder DeWayne Barton, center in green shirt. “We want to create that structure in the neighborhood.” The collaborative Ancestors in the Garden event looks to provide such a solution. Photo courtesy of Carnival de Resistance

The idea for Ancestors in the Garden was conceived by DeWayne Barton, co-founder of Hood Huggers International — an organization that raises awareness about the needs of Asheville’s black residents — and the Burton Street Peace Garden. Barton grew up in the historically African-American Burton Street neighborhood of West Asheville. In 2003, to combat the drugs, violence and social apathy he encountered in his neighborhood, he created the Peace Garden as a gathering place for the community and, with time and effort, was able to turn an overgrown lot into a thriving recycled-art sculpture garden and food-growing space.

On Saturday, June 3, Hood Huggers will celebrate a new partnership with Voices United (a youth theater program that teaches young people to write, produce and perform in their own musicals) and Asheville Creative Arts (a local children’s theater company) by producing Ancestors in the Garden, a music and art event at the Peace Garden. Barton says that the focus on ancestry is about “looking to the past to help inspire and guide our direction in the future.” There will be theater workshops throughout the day, and local musical acts Spaceman Jones, Natural Born Leaders, Monk and Jonathan Santos will perform.

“This is going to be like a little commercial trying to promote what we’re doing in the garden now and making people aware that these organizations exist and that this is one of their bases,” Barton says about the Ancestors event. He explains that for those parents in the Burton Street neighborhood who have little expendable income and lack of transportation, it’s hard to justify enrolling their kids in a theater class across town.

“It’s a challenge to let people know that these [theater and art] opportunities are available to them,” says Barton. “If the kids want to play basketball, they can go to that court over there, but what if they want to be a theater major or artist or performer? We want to create that structure in the neighborhood.”

Barton sees the collaboration between Hood Huggers, Voices United and Asheville Creative Arts as a big step toward bringing art and theater to his neighborhood, but also as a way to unite with other black residents of Asheville who are also working to revitalize their neighborhoods.

“This isn’t just us doing this [community building],” says Barton. “They’re doing it on the East End, they’re doing it in Shiloh and at the [Residents Council of Asheville Housing Authority], but how do we connect those communities? This is what we’re hoping to do.”

Abby Felder, co-founder of Asheville Creative Arts, is working with Barton to make art and theater more affordable and accessible to underserved neighborhoods. She has been meeting with Barton to plan Ancestors in the Garden and what a future partnership will look like.

“Because of our deep commitment to ensuring all of Asheville’s communities see themselves as represented on our stages and welcome in our spaces,” says Felder, “we have been partnering with Hood Huggers and others to hold conversations among theater and community organizations related to equity and access.”

Asheville Creative Arts will use the newly built stages at the Peace Garden to rehearse and stage performances. Felder says she hopes to garner the attention of the young members of the Burton Street area and inspire them to participate in Asheville’s growing artistic community.

“DeWayne has been doing this for a long time, and I am grateful to be strengthening ties between our organizations to work toward what he refers to as ‘the pipeline’ from the community he works in and serves into the broader arts sector,” says Felder.

To demonstrate the potential for art to provide opportunities for healthy creative expression, Katie Christie of the Miami-based Voices United will be leading workshops, theater games and improv exercises at the Ancestors event. She will also encourage a discussion about the challenges facing economically challenged and nonwhite communities.

“The goal is to use the arts to bring people together, sharing the same space together in a safe, loving, honest way,” says Christie, who founded Voices United in 1989 to provide a platform for underrepresented young people. Since its inception, Voices United has worked with thousands of youths who have gone on to find success in the arts. Alumni include Alex Lacamoire (musical director for Hamilton) and Moonlight author Tarell McCraney.

“The hope is that this gives people an idea how, as community members, we can generate our own art about the things we care about, and we can create them in our own public spaces,” says Christie. “We are trying to help community members look at and address what they are experiencing, and find helpful solutions and build new relationships that ultimately reduce bias and bring a city closer together around something that we can all share — the arts.”

WHAT: Ancestors in the Garden
WHERE: Burton Street Peace Gardens, 49 Bryant St.
WHEN: Saturday, June 3. Garden tours start at 1 p.m., performances 3-7 p.m. $5 suggested donation


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