"I didn't realize how little all of our different communities know about each other," Lynden Harris says.
On the sunny patio of a Hillsborough coffeehouse, the Hidden Voices executive artistic director pauses to reflect on five years of carefully listening to—and just as carefully staging—the real-life stories of so many, first in theaters and other venues around the region, and then in conferences outside of it.
Local survivors of domestic violence. Inmates from the Women's Prison in Raleigh. Bright, resourceful Hispanic teenagers, caught in the middle when their families became undocumented aliens. Adults achieving literacy for the first time. Latino, black and white students in a rural Franklin County high school. Neighbors, old and new, in an historic African-American community in Chapel Hill now besieged by developers.
I've just asked her what has surprised her most in all of her company's work.
"We live not even miles from each other—it's more like feet—and yet...." Harris' voice stops for a moment as she collects her thoughts.
"We were working with the kids in Franklin County [on a 2006 performance called Not Your Mama's Home Cooking]. They're in school together every day. But it was amazing to learn how incredibly isolated they are from each other; how little interaction they have because there are no clubs, no after-school things—no access, no infrastructure for it to happen.
"The Latino kids we've worked with [on 2005's La Vida Local] tend to be very isolated. In working with university students, the teens and the seniors in Chapel Hill's Northside community [on their current multimedia project, Because We Are Still Here (and Moving)]—the same thing," she continues.
"Everybody has their own world, their own perspective," she concludes. "They simply do not overlap."
Since 2003, Harris and her colleagues—including artistic director Kathy Williams, project manager Allison Garren, writing mentor Courtney Doi, photographer Ellen Ozier and researcher Dwana Waugh—have used the theater to help communities reconnect through what its Web site terms "the transformative power of the individual voice."
But how exactly does a small group of artists/ activists help a series of marginalized populations find—and add—their voices to the larger civic dialogue? By listening very carefully, to begin with.
"That's why we can't just whip one of these things out," artistic director—and Playmakers Repertory stalwart—Williams notes. "We don't come in and say, 'OK, here's the show we're going to do.'
"First, you have to see what story is emerging," she continues. "They reveal themselves through interviews and workshops, through the telling of the stories, back and forth. You have to be careful, respectful and mindful of their stories. It's personal. It takes months; it's a very in-depth process."
Why deliberate for so long? When performance ethnography is done poorly or with the wrong motivation, its subjects can wind up feeling spiritually strip-mined, exploited for the ultimate benefit of someone else.
"It happened when we were interviewing the senior residents of Northside for Because We Are Still Here," Harris recalls. "Some of them have been interviewed before: two, three or four times in some cases. And some of them had really powerful feelings about the fact that people had interviewed them—and maybe [the result] existed, in an archive or in a university, somewhere. But from their perspective, nothing had been done with it and nothing had come of it. Nothing."
"Academics don't always have the answers," says project manager Garren, who's working with the group through an AmeriCorps grant. "If you want to know about the pitfalls involved with literacy or other issues, it makes sense to ask the people who've been through them the hard way, and who've experienced them directly.
"A lot of agencies talk about 'servant leadership' and how their clients are their equals," Garren observes. "This program gives them the spotlight and steps back into the wings."
How does the program avoid being dismissed as "victim art," the tag dance critic Arlene Croce smeared Bill T. Jones' Still/Here with in a now-infamous 1994 review? "These are not depressing stories about victimization, but of people overcoming such odds they have faced," says UNC sociology professor Judith Blau. "These ethnographies are very compelling; they're a microcosm of much bigger stories. They grab hold of us and say, 'Look, this is what's happening to these people—and to us.'"
Enrique Correa was in the cast of RESPECT Has Seven Letters, a show about newly literate adults. "It helped a lot to share my history, my life," he says, "what it's like to be Hispanic in this country when you don't speak the language, have to work and don't have time to go to school."
For gospel singer Jennifer Evans, the recent production of Rewind, the story of one woman's prison odyssey and ultimate redemption, made the case for Hidden Voices. Viewing the work "released me, in a lot of ways, from a lot of pain," Evans says.
"There was a point where [actor Hope Hynes] was sitting, holding her legs together, in a ball, like a little child in a room," she recalls. "That's what caught me and pulled at me the most.
"That was me," she explains. "That was what I used to do, when my mother was being physically abused.
"When you see the play, you are looking through the eyes of the people who are telling the story from the heart—not the eyes of the director or the producer putting on the show."
Evans is now at work with the group on an upcoming project, Speaking Without Tongues, about surviving domestic violence. "They've just been open, listening to my story," she says. "No one's tried to change anything, to tell me what to say or how to say it. There've been no time restraints. I appreciate that; it's meant a lot to me."