How is COVID-19 affecting Houston’s holiday performing arts?

Delphi Borich as Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” from Theatre Under The Stars, which has canceled remaining performances of the show due to COVID / photo credit: Melissa Taylor

This article has been updated to reflect developments [12/22/21, 9:30pm]

As the U.S. faces a new wave of COVID – fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant, making up 73% of new infections last week, according to the CDC – NPR reported via The Associated Press:

Many stages on both Broadway and the West End have been forced to go dark once more as the live theater community grapples with backstage outbreaks of the coronavirus and its variants, temporarily closing everything from London’s revival of Cabaret starring Eddie Redmayne to mighty Hamilton in New York.

At one point last week, according to the report, five of 32 Broadway shows were dealing with canceled performances. This week, producers of the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill announced that it would close that show because of multiple positive COVID-19 cases within the company.

Update: Today NPR reported that nine Broadway musicals have announced that they will be on haitus until after Christmas because of breakthrough infections.

Here in Houston – where hospital officials say that positive omicron cases are doubling every two to three days and the Harris County threat level has been raised to “orange” (significant) as of Monday – local performing arts groups have been impacted by COVID. So far there have not been a large number of canceled performances or productions, though the situation is developing.

The only production that has closed, based on Houston Arts Journal’s review of local companies, is Disney’s The Little Mermaid by Theatre Under The Stars.

Originally scheduled to run through December 24 at The Hobby Center, TUTS announced on December 20, that it would cancel all remaining performances due to COVID among cast and crew:

Update: This evening, the Ensemble Theatre announced that breakthrough COVID cases have forced the company to cancel the December 23 performance of A Motown Christmas – with remaining performances in the run to be determined.

Last week, Stages Theatre canceled performances of Panto Little Mermaid because of a positive COVID test in the cast, according to an email from Dancie Perugini Ware Public Relations. That production has now been cleared to resume on December 22 and will continue, with additional shows scheduled, through January 2.

Stages’ concurrent production of Sister’s Christmas Catechism has not been disrupted and continues to run as scheduled through December 31.

Another show that has coped with COVID is A Christmas Carol at The Alley Theatre, which canceled performances on December 19:

The Alley has since resumed its scheduled run of A Christmas Carol through December 29.

Among other local holiday offerings, the following productions are currently running without disruption:

You can find COVID safety protocol for each company on their respective websites.

Read more here:

COVID surge cancels Houston theater performances, basketball games and holiday parties (via Houston Chronicle)

Latest COVID surge hits Broadway duruing the lucrative holiday season (via NPR)

Local artist produces a docuseries on the African diaspora in Houston

Poet Ayokunle Falomo is featured in Loyce Gayo’s “By Way Of, Houston

2016 article by the Kinder Institute reported that roughly 61,000 African-born people were living in Greater Houston. That community made up about 4.5% of the city’s foreign-born population at the time, described as a “small” but “growing and increasingly visible group here and across the country.”

Indeed, according to the Migration Policy Institute, African immigrants had the highest growth rate (82%) among the city’s immigrant population between 2010 and 2017, and with more recent data suggesting closer to 90,000 individuals in the region.

Poet, educator, and filmmaker Loyce Gayo points out that behind these numbers are multitudes of stories and nuanced understandings of what it means to be an immigrant, to experience both estrangement and belonging, to find home – to shape, and be shaped by, Houston.

Gayo set out to explore and document stories of the African diaspora in Houston, with funding from a grant from the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs through the Houston Arts Alliance.

The resulting project is By Way Of, Houston, a docuseries that profiles five local African immigrants.

It will be shown in a free screening, followed by a conversation with the filmmaker, on Friday, December 17 at 6:30pm at the SAiD Institute. Gayo also plans to archive each episode online in the future.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Loyce Gayo for the following interview.

Loyce Gayo / photo credit: Hakeem Adewumi

Can you tell me a little bit about the story behind this project? How did you come up with the idea and why did you want to do it?

I have been closely studying how African immigrants negotiate belonging in Houston ever since I moved here from Tanzania in 2007. From being able to easily source ingredients for a traditional Tanzanian dish to singing Swahili hymnals in church, Houston afforded me, and many like me, the material conditions to feel at home in a foreign place. I wanted to capture that magic in this project. 

Tell me about the Houstonians you profiled and why you chose them.

I profiled five incredible individuals, Ayokunle Falomo, a poet; Nneka Stefania Achapu, a political strategist; Chukwunonso Ofili, a painter and comedian; and Martins Amune and Anita Okpobiri.

I selected each person because of their unique perspectives on the African Diasporic experience: Ayo’s experience living in Southwest Houston largely informs his poetry. Nneka works closely in the Black immigrant justice movement in Texas and spoke about how local policies influence African immigrants. Martins and Anita spoke about how customs and tradition influence their dating life. And Ofili spoke about the City supporting his work as a visual artist through financial opportunities.

2016 article by the Kinder Institute shares the views of sociologist Anima Adjepong: “Even though Houston’s African immigrant community contains a variety of ethnicities and languages, argues Adjepong, once those immigrants arrive here, they form a common identity. ‘In spaces such as African grocery stores, strangers develop community as African, through shared experiences of estrangement from home, and their need for that space,’ Adjepong said.”

I just wanted to bring in that context to set up my asking you for your thoughts on “home” and “belonging.” What did you learn about those notions from your interviewees?

To a certain extent the sentiment of a common identity is true. There is often a far-reaching sense of kinship, especially in religious spaces, but what I gathered from my interviews was a desire to add nuance and complexity to the common Diasporic identity we know. 

Another thing that was emphasized in my conversations was how that commonality doesn’t translate to organizing towards collective political power.

Clip from Loyce Gayo’s “By Way Of, Houston”

As part of Ayokunle Falomo’s profile, he reads his poem “S.W.A.T, ALWAYS,” an ode to Southwest Alief Texas.

On social media, you wrote: “This poem beautifully captures what it is like living in Southwest Houston, the city’s international district, and where many African immigrants live!” Would you say more about how that poem resonates with you?

I can’t think of a single African immigrant who doesn’t have some relationship to Southwest Houston. When my mother first moved to Houston, we lived in Pasadena but traveled every week to the international church on Beechnut. We bought our sambusas at the halal store on Hillcroft. We bought our clothes and fragrances at the shops on Harwin. Southwest Houston is the backdrop to virtually all African diasporic experiences. 

Was there another moment, or story, in the docuseries that particularly moved – or surprised – you?

I was really moved by Nneka’s comment [in the video below] on the local ordinance affecting the Southwest stretch of Bissonnet. There are a lot of things to celebrate about this city and its ability to accommodate people of all walks of life, but if politicians don’t listen to and work to meet the needs of especially those on the margins of our community, Houston stands to lose the very magic that makes this city special! 

You’re an accomplished poet and performer – was this your first foray into filmmaking?  Did you experiment visually to add to the storytelling?

Yes, this was my first venture into filmmaking! It was both incredibly terrifying and exhilarating. The best part of the entire process was the conversation. I worked really hard to curate a space and thought-provoking questions that promoted deep reflection and vulnerability. I desperately hope the work honors each story shared.

I really wanted to try my hand at a different form of storytelling. The use of split-screen in non-fiction filmmaking is very popular, and that was an experiment.

Why is it important for you to tell, and share, these stories of the African diaspora in Houston?  Does this moment in history – in this time of a global pandemic, political divide, and social unrest – give it more urgency?

My recent Google search of “african immigrants houston” yielded results on travel bans due to the new COVID variant, and reports of “illegal immigration.” The ever-nuanced and complex lives of African immigrants in this city (and ultimately, even their unique needs) go unmentioned and unrepresented! There is an urgent need not to just tell these stories, but use these perspectives to galvanize and collectively organize. 

Clip from Loyce Gayo’s “By Way Of, Houston”


Houston’s first BIPOC book festival is in the works

The Houston BIPOC Book Fest is planned for spring 2022.

Houston journalists Brittany Britto Garley, Jaundrea Clay, and Brooke Lewis are organizing the city’s first BIPOC Book Fest.

Scheduled for spring 2022, the festival is planned as a two-day event centered on writers of color and literary works that feature Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and members of other marginalized communities, according to its website.

Organizers will collaborate with writers and readers to curate artist talks, readings, vendors, and literary memorabilia, inspired by the spirit of book fairs.

“Houston is my hometown. It’s a city full of rich culture and diverse backgrounds that I love deeply,” said Brooke Lewis in a tweet. “Houston also represents the America of today. That’s why we know Houston is the perfect spot to host a festival that celebrates diversity in literature.”

While the BIPOC Book Fest will be the first of its kind in the city, Houston has seen notable efforts to support writers of color, locally and nationally – a testament to its diverse literary scene.

The University of Houston is home to Arte Público Press, the oldest and largest Hispanic publisher in the U.S., and the recently-established Puerto Rican Literature Project, which aims to be the most comprehensive digital archive of its kind when fully launched.

Other initiatives in Houston include The Colony, a summit for writers of color founded by poet Deborah DEEP Mouton; Tintero Projects, a grassroots organization that provides opportunities for Texas Gulf Coast-based Latinx writers; and Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, a longtime literary group and radio show founded by writer-activist Tony Diaz

“I know how important it is to see books with characters that look like me in them,” Lewis said in a tweet. “Representation matters, and we hope all who come to this festival can leave seeing a piece of themselves, but also walk away with knowledge of other cultures and backgrounds.”

BIPOC Book Fest organizers see a link between representation in literature and literacy rates, citing studies that indicate that Black and Hispanic adults are more likely to have lower literacy skills and reading habits, along with an analysis of children’s books in 2020 that showed that only 8% were written by Black authors and 12% centered Black characters, while 7% were by Latinx authors and 6% were about Latinx characters.

With literacy a key motivator behind the festival, organizers say they hope to make reading more inclusive, in an effort to impact local academic success, political engagement, and the economy.

The festival will also aim to bring awareness to BIPOC-led publishers and independent bookstores through local and regional partnerships with Kindred Stories in the Third Ward, Native-owned comic book shop Red Planet, SOA Co Books, Arte Público Press, Brazos Bookstore, and San Antonio’s Guadelupe Latino Bookstore.

Organizers are working to raise $10,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to cover costs of the festival, and have applied for a grant from the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance.

Orange Show’s expanded campus aims to become a major destination for folk and outsider art

Rendering of the expanded Orange Show Center for Visionary Art / Courtesy of Rogers Partners

The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art recently announced plans for a major expansion to its campus, which will lead to more exhibition space, additional facilities, and increased programs to serve the public – and to engage community art-making.

What began as a monument in honor of a favorite fruit – from 1956 to 1980 Houston postman Jeff McKissack used common materials and found objects “to transform an East End lot into an architectural maze of walkways, balconies, arenas and exhibits decorated with mosaics and brightly painted iron figures” – became the Orange Show Center in 1982.

The Center restored and preserved the monument, then later acquired the Beer Can House and developed Smither Park, a mosaic art-adorned green space. Since 1988, it has also produced Houston’s annual Art Car Parade.

Earning its reputation over the decades as a hub for folk art activity in Houston, the Orange Show has also been nationally recognized a “temple for outsider art,” most recently by GQ Magazine.

Rendering of the expanded Orange Show Center for Visionary Art / Courtesy of Rogers Partners

The newly expanded campus – to be completed over the next five years – will aim to bring more attention to its major role in supporting self-taught art, and to widen its reach within the community and beyond.

“We want to encourage visitors not only to see the art, but to participate, make, and engage with it. This experiential environment differentiates the Orange Show from other museums or gallery spaces,” said Tommy Lee Pace, Orange Show executive director, in a statement.

Here’s what to expect from the expansion:

  • The new campus will use a 5.7 acre property acquired by the Orange Show Center in 2017.
  • It includes a 31,000-square foot warehouse building, which will be converted into a performance and exhibition space – with potential use for offices, programs, education, events, and an art library.
  • A new 800-foot ramp will be built throughout the entire campus, serving as an extended display area for art cars and a promenade for visitors.
  • The newly expanded space will be adjacent to the current Orange Show Monument, which is located at 2401 Munger Street.
  • Inclusive of the current site, the total expansion will create an 8-acre campus that will seque into the nearby Fonde Park.
Rendering of Smither Park’s Mosaic Alley / Courtesy of Rogers Partners
  • Smither Park will “nearly double in size thanks to a new ‘Mosaic Alley’ … [and] the public will be encouraged to contribute to the ongoing mosaic project,” according to reporting by Glasstire.
  • The projected timeline is a 2026 public opening.
  • Rogers Partners, a New York-based architectural firm with offices in Houston, will lead the design project.

Read more here:

Houston’s Orange Show Announces Major Expansion (via Glasstire)

Houston’s beloved Orange Show reveals vivid expansion of vibrant headquarters (via CultureMap Houston)

Houston’s Orange Show Center announces expansion to 8 acres of vibrant art cars, creative displays (via Houston Chronicle)

Rendering of the Orange Show Monument / Courtesy of Rogers Partners

$62,500 in grants awarded to local artists show wide range of projects in Houston

The Little Girl in the Lion’s Den by Tierney Malone, part of The Sankofa Project at Lawndale Art Center / photo from LawndaleArtsCenter.org

The latest round of grants from the City of Houston Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA) has awarded a total of $62,500 to 12 artists and nonprofits.

Even as the pandemic continues and artists face challenges, the grants reveal that a wide range of art-making persists in the city, including efforts to work toward social justice, mental health, racial equality, and a greater engagement of local communities.

Grant recipients’ projects involve subjects and genres often rooted in Houston – including community storytelling inspired by the life and childhood of George Floyd, meditation through music in Indo-American traditions, performance art in Third Ward, pop-up theater in Acres Homes, and outdoor cinema showcasing works by underrepresented filmmakers, as well as land art and hip hop.

Seven recipients were awarded $2,500 each through Let Creativity Happen! Digital, a grant program that launched in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It supports projects reimagined in a virtual format or that use digital technology to engage audiences.

Four recipients were awarded $10,000 each, and a fifth recipient awarded $5,000, through the City Initiative grant program, which is in its third round of the year. This program seeks to use the arts to strengthen the city, as it reopens from the pandemic. Projects support cultural tourism, sustainability, and community resilience.

“The arts helped the city flourish and enlightened the lives of our citizens during the pandemic,” said Necole S. Irvin, MOCA Director, in a press release.

“As we continue to recover, we know that the city’s continued support of the creative sector and communities’ support of cultural activities is integral to building back our economy,” said Irvin.

Houston Arts Alliance administers the grants, which are funded by a portion of the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax.

The Orange Show Media Project will document performances by Houston artists in front of live audiences at the Orange Show’s historic properties. / photo from OrangeShow.org

The following list with descriptions of grant recipients was provided by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

The seven awardees for the “Let Creativity Happen! Digital” grants are:

George Floyd Childhood in the Cuney Homes
By Crystal Toussant
District B
Mack Performing Arts Collective (MPAC)
Children and residents of Cuney Homes will share stories of growing up in a low-income housing development where many deal with hard times and social injustice. They will explore the life and childhood of George Floyd and use him as inspiration. MPAC members along with the participants will be using texts, lighting, costumes, make-up, and scenery to bring their stories to life.
 
Online Classes Using Art to Support Mental Health
By Andria Frankfort
District C
C G Jung Educational Center of Houston, Texas
Unique in the United States, The Jung Center offers year-round, live-streamed and online classes that employ the arts in supporting the mental health of the community. Two-thirds of their programming is open to the public, while the other third is designed specifically to bring healing arts to support the mental health of social service providers, frontline workers, teachers, nonprofit employees, healthcare workers, and others. Their public-facing programming is taught by psychotherapists, book and film group facilitators, improv actors, musicians, a children’s art therapist, and others. The Online Activation Form includes an incomplete list of public arts programming currently scheduled for Fall 2021: times are to be determined. More classes will be scheduled for the fall as well as for Spring and Summer 2022.
 
Be-Longing
By Mariela Dominguez
District C
Mariela Dominguez will choose an object to be the trigger for a story of a journey that evokes uprooting and regeneration. A set of four videos presents the stories between two speakers, one, the issue of a mother tongue as the other represents the mediator who personifies a new local generation that articulates the dominant English language. This material object evokes cultural ties that are seemingly enigmatic to everyone except those who retain their mother tongue. The development of a set of four videos with English subtitles is projected and additionally, various audiovisual resources will be included.
 
SUKOON: Tranquility Thru Music
By Sheetal Bedi
District C
Indo-American Association (IAA)
Sukoon is an Urdu/Hindi word which translates to calm, peace, relief, serenity, tranquility, and wholeness. Through this project, IAA will endeavor to bring great sukoon and tranquility to digital audiences. Patrons have come to deeply value IAA’s digital concerts at a time of tremendous isolation and loneliness. The Sukoon project will give an opportunity to emerging artists to showcase their ability to connect digital audiences to a meditative space where tranquility can be found at the individual level, even for a few minutes. This will be presented through IAA’s social media platforms.
 
The Sankofa Project and its Virtual Dialogues
By Stephanie Mitchell
District C
Lawndale Art and Performance Center
The Sankofa Project brings light to the events that have been censored or ignored in historical narratives and reinforced the racial oppression of Black Americans. A free Zoom conversation between the artist and collaborating scholar or historian will be held and deepen the conversation on race and inequality and educate the community. These dialogues will be available post-event via Lawndale’s website and social media along with exhibition documentation and materials for public accessibility.
 
Mindful In This Moment
By Nathan Edwards
District D
On a clear morning in February 2022, Nathan Edwards will film a live installation around the theme of meditation. 50 black men and women dressed in monochromatic pastel colors will meet at a Houston park for a staged, live, one-hour installation/meditation that will be filmed, edited, and shared online.
 
Orange Show Media Project
By Sara Kellner
District I
Orange Show Center for Visionary Art
The Orange Show Media Project is a partnership with SWAMP and its young filmmakers to document five intimate performances by visionary Houston artists in front of live audiences at the Orange Show’s historic properties. These will be live streamed weekly starting July 4, 2022.

“Symbiosis” by Cindee Travis Klement is a work of living land art that introduces local color, texture, and variation through a variety of native plants / photo from LawndaleArtCenter.org

 
The 5 awardees for the “City Initiative” grants are:
 
Christmas in the 44: An Urban Christmas Tale
By Norma Thomas
District B
Christmas in the 44: An Urban Christmas Tale (UCT) brings theatre to Acres Homes community in more ways than one. UCT is “takin’ it to the streets!” Staged outside local businesses along the 4 major Acres Homes throughfares, festive tableau style scenarios, much like department store holiday window displays and the live nativity scenes of old, will delight passers-by, create community celebration, and foster holiday spirit.

Scott @ X
By Andrew Davis
District C
Scott @ X proposes a new way of engaging communities with performance art. Throughout November 2021, weekly Sunday performances will occur along Metro Rail stops in Third Ward; with the opening performance at the Leeland/Third Ward stop and closing performance at MacGregor Park/Martin Luther King, Jr. stop. The audience will be able to engage with the performance on site as well as virtually through Twitch using QR codes posted at the Metro Rail stops.

2 Post Cinema
By Britt Thomas
District C
2 Post Cinema is a neighborhood outdoor cinema set to open in November 2021. It will showcase contemporary film and video art created by underrepresented artists and filmmakers. Utilizing the non-obstructed view, they have of T.C. Jester Park’s parking lot from their property, Britt and Prince Thomas will erect a large, retractable rear-projected film screen in their backyard while relaying sound via radio transmission to viewers’ car stereos. 2 Post Cinema is a free, publicly accessible catalyst for bringing together our diverse community via the arts in a safe, socially distanced manner.

Cindee Travis Klement: Symbiosis
By Lawndale Art and Performance Center
District C
Cindee Travis Klement’s Symbiosis is a work of living land art in Mary E. Bawden Sculpture Garden at Lawndale Art and Performance Center, which introduces a variety of native plants to immerse the community in and educate them on the possibility of a more regenerative, sustainable future.

Swisha House: Rollin’ & Burnin’ Since ‘97
By Henry Guidry
District D
With millions of records sold, several Grammy nominated artists and the first record label/music genre to be archived in Rice University’s Fondren Library, Swishahouse has been a staple in the Houston hip hop scene since the mid-90’s. This event, held in East Downtown Houston at 8th Wonder Brewery, will exhibit items from the Rice archive, CD & mixtape covers and never-seen-before photos. The exhibit will simultaneously highlight the impact Swishahouse has made on the hip hop genre while introducing to many, and reinforcing to others, the significance of Swishahouse on the Southern hip-hop movement.

‘Tremendous showing’ at Houston’s first Día de Los Muertos festival

Artist Ruth Sosa Bailey’s art car, “Imagine,” was featured in the Houston Día de los Muertos Parade / courtesy of Elizabeth Sosa Bailey

Houston’s neighborhoods have been home to rich, and growing, local traditions of celebrating Día de los Muertos – from MECA’s annual event, which has taken place for over two decades, to events at the longtime Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery, at the East End’s Magnolia Park, and at Karbach Brewing.

But this year marked the City of Houston’s first official Día de los Muertos celebration, bringing wider attention and a larger public stage to the traditional Mexican holiday (November 1 and 2), which is a time to remember and honor deceased loved ones.

The city’s inaugural festival and parade took place this past Saturday, November 6, at downtown’s Sam Houston Park.

City Councilmember Robert Gallegos, who initiated the idea and guided the creation of the festival, called the turnout “tremendous.”

Gallegos served as Honorary Chair and Grand Marshal of the Parade. The event was produced by Mauricio Navarro, a former Houstonian and President of the Navarro Group, which also founded a successful Día de los Muertos festival in Dallas.

The Houston Chronicle reported that the City of Houston expected the festival to draw more than 40,000 people. Houston Arts Journal reached out the Mayor’s Office of Special Events for a crowd estimate, but has not received a number.

Elizabeth Sosa Bailey was in attendance and said she saw “thousands of people” there. She and her mother, artist Ruth Sosa Bailey, participated in the parade – riding in Ruth’s award-winning art car, “Imagine.”

“Imagine,” an art car by Mexican American artist Ruth Sosa Bailey, at the Houston Día de Los Muertos Parade / courtesy of Elizabeth Sosa Bailey

“In one car, we represented a lot,” said Ruth Sosa Bailey.

According to Elizabeth Sosa Bailey, “we had the three generations with my abuelita, Gertrudis de Sosa [in the front seat]; my mother, the artist at the helm; and myself in the back seat with our friend April Lucero and her toddler son, Uriel.”

April Lucero, Lucero’s son, and Elizabeth Sosa Bailey / courtesy of Elizabeth Sosa Bailey

“It’s so exciting to see Houston embracing this aspect of our Latin culture, beyond Latiné families,” said Elizabeth Sosa Bailey.

Michelle Ferrell, a designer and illustrator, made her own costume inspired by a Frida Kahlo painting, she said in a tweet. Ferrell attended the festival with her Tia, Lenora Sorola-Pohlman, co-chair of the Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Board.

Michelle Ferrell and Lenora Sorola-Pohlman / courtesy of Michelle Ferrell

The festival provided time to reflect on the losses of the pandemic, as well as the fresh losses of the previous night – during which eight people died at the Astroworld Festival, shocking Houstonians and the rest of the country.

“I certainly want to us to remember those individuals who died, you know, last night at the NRG Stadium at the Travis Scott concert,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner in an interview with ABC 13 at the parade. “So we want to remember them, and then we want to uplift their families.”

Mayor Turner also noted that about 3500 families in the City of Houston have lost loved ones to COVID.

“This is one of those moments where we stop, we reflect, we remember, we honor them, and the same time, we celebrate their lives,” he said.

Officials said that this was the first of more Día de los Muertos festivals to come.

“It will simply get bigger and bigger and bigger,” said Mayor Turner. “You know, we say that we are the most diverse city in the country. Well, this parade will help us give even added meaning to that.”

You can watch a video of the parade here (via ABC13).