Queenie’s Farewell Block Party creates familiar conversation with fun engagement

By Dora Blaskievich

August 12, 2016

Alright, confession time. I usually think of performance art as being a load of BS. Capital B, capital S. Insert eye roll and a yawn. Actors ACTING. Capital A acting. But tonight I was proven wrong. And I’m so glad I was. Taking part in No Vacancy’s production, Queenie’s Farewell Block Party, and you will take part when you go, was an immersive, very fun and unique piece of performance art that tackles the hot topic of Charlotte’s shiny new developments and the preservation of its history. And bathrooms, breweries, the police… you know what I’m talking about. Unlike the back-and-forth arguments on your Facebook feed, this piece of theater will actually make you feel things and it’ll make you think about the other side. Why they do what they’re doing, and who’s really right? Can both sides be right and wrong? Can we keep Charlotte’s history and move forward into the sparkly future? Deep stuff.

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As you walk to the front desk, one of the members will greet you, and then you’ll chat and mingle with the actors and participants. You’ll get a tour of the different rooms and interact with the art installations, as well as the artists. Don’t try to find out too much before going because the less you know the better the experience will be. Instead of anticipating what’s next, let yourself be led through the performance and participate by asking questions as you go. Everything will come together as each scene is performed and more information is revealed. Also, beer, popsicles, the chicken dance, and pink lemonade! Oh, and the ending, WHEW, THE ENDING! Guess you’ll just have to go and see it for yourself.  

We had a chance to chat with creator and director Brianna Smith prior to the show to get to know more about No Vacancy, TAPROOT and Queenie’s Farewell Block Party.

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Creator of No Vacancy, Brianna Smith. Photo by Micah Cash

What was the original inspiration behind No Vacancy?

Jeff (Barninger) and I wanted to create a project that explored the partnership between visual and performing arts. So often, a play is written and then a scenic designer imagines a set or an artist creates a work of art and a performer builds a piece to perform in front of it. We wanted to see if we could develop a process that worked more collaboratively. As a general rule, TAPROOT works like a science experiment. We ask a question, make a hypothesis and then test it out through phases of development to see if we can answer that core question. In this case, the question was “Can we create a new way of developing work that draws the artists and the art into a dialogue where both are shaped by the other?”

What is the story behind Queenie?

The South End Motel has been purchased by Zenith Properties and the tenants are in their last week before they have to be out. Queenie, the matriarch of the neighborhood, is throwing her annual block party one last time. There are games, a “tour of homes,” drinks, songs and treats. Meanwhile, representatives from Zenith Properties newest apartment building are on hand to give tours of the space with the newest urban pioneer who plans to build a coffee shop and brewery where the South End Motel once was. Each character offers their own idea of what should happen to the space and, in the midst of it all, two sisters guide us through the party as narrators and oracles.

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Photo by Micah Cash

Is the South End Motel mimicking the development or redevelopment of South End?

Absolutely. And, we hope, faithfully. We read a lot, talked a lot, asked a lot of people a lot of questions and tried to create a piece that refrains from turning the established residents or the “urban pioneers” into villains. Both sides have their own ideas about how and why changes should or should not take place in the neighborhood. We wanted to offer people a chance to hear and see these stories in a odd and playful way that brings them into the process and asks them to approach the subject with nuance and creativity.

Do the rooms have specific meanings or stories?

Yes. The artists each created their specific room based on their own interpretation of a motel room, with each space focusing on its own concept. The performance piece was built around our ideas of who the people are that live in each of these spaces. Each one has its own aesthetic and a character to match.

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Photo by Micah Cash

What can people expect from the farewell block party exhibit?

Dress comfortably. You will be moving around, standing, drinking, eating, playing games and exploring. We encourage people to stick around after the show for a few minutes and talk to their fellow audience members about what they have seen. No single audience member gets the full story. We’re hoping that audiences will fill in the blanks with each other afterwards. Maybe they’ll even continue to ask questions and find ways to be a part of contributing to a healthy growth in Charlotte that considers people from all walks of life and the preservation of our culture and history.

What message do you hope to convey to patrons attending the exhibit?

It’s not that simple. It doesn’t really matter where you fall on the spectrum, whether you think we should put in all new everything or that nothing should change; it’s not that simple. Positive growth in a city, in a neighborhood, is nuanced and delicate and difficult. There are a hundred different ideas, all of which may be rooted in a real desire to see Charlotte be the best that it can be. We need empathy, openness and engagement from the community to challenge developers if they want to bring in more and more new without any regard for how and why it’s developed. And we need to empower neighborhoods and established residents to be a part of the growth process so that their needs and history aren’t forgotten.

Do you have aspirations for new projects similar to this?

Yes. Jeff and I have talked about taking No Vacancy to other cities in collaboration with artists who live there. We’ve gotten great feedback from visitors who have come in from out of town and are in the process of setting up meetings with artists and funders in other cities. We are hopeful that there will be a life for this idea again in the future, whether in Charlotte or elsewhere.

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Photo by Micah Cash

What do you hope to see more of in Charlotte?

Engagement, listening and self-evaluation. There is a huge amount of potential in this city in all areas, but there are many people who favor an event where they can walk in and walk out to one where they sit, listen, engage and contribute. When the residents of a city don’t engage, don’t contribute to the work being done, it’s easy for others to make decisions for us and even easier for a small number of people to have final say in the landscape being built. Learn more, engage more, go to things and really see them. Spend more time watching shows than standing outside talking with the music in the background. Go to a play and don’t check your phone while the actors are onstage. Visit an art exhibit and spend time really looking at the art and talking to the artists about their work. Go to a city council meeting and engage in local politics. Invest in local businesses and find new places to hang out that you haven’t already read about somewhere. Go to things that aren’t being featured in blogs and newspapers. Challenge developers to create spaces that serve the community and the needs and desires within the community. Be informed. If you want more of something, put your money where your mouth is and invest. Come to events and promote work that’s happening locally.

Queenie’s Farewell Block Party will take place at C3 Lab in Southend, from August 11-13, 18-20 at 7:30pm.

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