Reimagining the Village: Bringing theatre right to your doorstep

by Mariah Hicks

It’s Saturday. Feb. 9. 10:30 am. The activity room in one of the buildings of the Cascade Village neighborhood holds four African-American women ranging in age: 20s. 30s. 60s. The space fills with warmth under the homely conversation the women bring forth.

Josy Jones, Jenniva Cummings, Morgan Brady, and Barbara Mitchell-King are their names. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers. But, at the core of their beings, they are creatives with the passion to make art.

And so, theatre class begins.

Josy Jones is the founder of The Chameleon Village Theatre Collective, a site-specific and explorative theatre initiative. Its mission is to bring recognition to overlooked and under-appreciated areas by collaborating with local artists and businesses.

Over the course of the next five months, Josy and these women will be working on a project called “Reimagining the Village,” which is set to take place in the Cascade Village neighborhood north of downtown Akron.

This project is a playwriting course that will teach the women how to write their own plays. At the end of the course, they will have the chance to perform those plays throughout the Cascade Village neighborhood.

“I’m teaching them to write plays for public space in their neighborhood and then it will manifest as a walking theatre tour through the neighborhood,” Josy says. The purpose of this project is to bring recognition to Cascade Village and encourage Akron to see the neighborhood in a more appreciative manner. The plays will occur at different sites throughout the neighborhood, which is what Josy calls “activating that public space” by using it in ways it may not have been used before.

Josy was inspired to start the collective while residing in Macon, Georgia, where she attended school for theatre.

“When I graduated, I realized that a lot of theaters in the area were not necessarily the ones that I wanted to be doing,” Josy says. “There were a lot of artists who were really interested in continuing to explore their craft… people already expect you to know how to do it as opposed to giving you the chance to work through it.”

Josy felt like there were a lot of public spaces that were underutilized in Macon, and she believed she could make that change. “I felt like I could connect artists to businesses and businesses to artists.”

This was the beginning of Josy’s inspiration to create a space for artists to explore their crafts.

READ MORE: none too fragile theatre brings powerful new shows from Akron to the big city

When Josy moved to Akron, she worked for an organization called Art X Love. They did a project, @ PLAY, which created interactive art experiences in each of Akron’s 24 neighborhoods. They researched each community and talked to leadership and residents about the challenges they faced.

One of the neighborhoods Josy was assigned to was Cascade Valley. This neighborhood used to be Elizabeth Park Valley, which was known for low-income housing. “It had this reputation of what people tend to think of when they think of poor people… Cascade Village specifically still has that connotation attached to it,” Josy says. “I don’t feel like it’s entirely fair that people who live down here just have to be shaped by this thing that didn’t have anything to really do with them.”

In 2018, Josy applied for a grant from 8 80 Cities and received funding to create a playwriting course.

“I teach people who live in the neighborhood to create plays for public space to activate that space,” Josy says. “It’s supposed to be for people to move in and out of and kind of explore their talents through it, but then for Cascade Village specifically, giving the people who live there the opportunity to reshape their narrative and create plays for public space in that neighborhood so it rewrites the narrative for them and what they see their space as being able to do and accomplish.”

Josy hopes this will also encourage Akron to see the neighborhood differently.

During the Saturday session, the women engaged in conversation over Paula Vogel’s play “How I Learned to Drive.” Josy presents plays that are written by women or that include strong female characters to help shape their understanding of playwriting as they begin to write their own scripts.

“I’ve always had a passion for writing, and there were countless opportunities I feel I missed over the past year because I was dealing with a lot going through [my] pregnancy and also being without work at the time,” says Morgan Brady, who is participating in Reimagining the Village. “To actually have an opportunity that is free of charge on my behalf and still get to learn how to write a play and really invest in my writing in a way that I wasn’t able to do so the past year, it feels really good.”

Barbara Mitchell-King has been writing since she was nine years old, and she promised to one day write a book. “My takeaway from this class would be that I continue to do what I started years ago,” Barbara says, “and that is to write, inspire, encourage and motivate all ages, but especially younger people.”

The oldest in the group, Barbara has found it interesting to hear the perspectives that the younger women bring to the table. She appreciates that they give her the same respect as an older woman. “It is so refreshing to know that there are young people who want to know about the good ole days,” Barbara says. “I enjoy them and I look forward to going to class on Saturdays.”

Jenniva Cummings says the course has enabled the women to create more intimate relationships. “I knew everybody in here prior to the class, but I feel like we’re on a different type of level. It’s a very intimate setting,” Jenniva says. “I wish that there had been more people that wanted to participate in it, you know, to kind of like spice it up a little bit because everybody comes from different backgrounds, and I feel like we really could learn from each other.”

READ MORE: Jenniva Cummings visualizes the beauty of the Black community with makeup and special effects

Though the group is small, it is mighty. These three women are reshaping the perspective that not only Akron, but they themselves, have of their community.

“We are all very different, yet being African-American women, there are a lot of things that we can relate to within one another,” Morgan says. “If it doesn’t bring unity within the community, at least there was a form of community here that we experienced over the course of the next several weeks. We’re connected, we’re uniting, we’re coming together for a good purpose, so even if it’s just a small percentage of people being impacted, we are still Cascade Village. We’re still a part of the community.”

The plays will manifest as walking theatre tours throughout Cascade Village on June 8. Each participant will receive a $400 stipend.

Josy hopes that this project will give the ladies a new sense of ownership for their neighborhood and allow Akron to see it in a new manner.

“I think that this particular program is really good for this community because it opens doors that weren’t even there to open,”  Morgan says. “Now they’re there, they’re open, and I think it will also help change that perspective… because now there’s actually something that women of color have their hands directly on and in.”

Mark your calendars for June 8th and make sure you stop through Cascade Village to see the art these women have worked so hard to create.

Mariah Hicks is a senior at Kent State University. She studies journalism and has a minor in creative writing.

Photo: From left to right, Jenniva Cummings, Morgan Brady and her son Carson, Josy Jones and Barbara Mitchell-King.

Full disclosure: Josy Jones is a contributor to The Devil Strip.