Carpetbag Theatre's "Stories that Validate and Strengthen Us"

actor on stage with backrop Carpetbag Theatre's September 2019 production of "Red Summer." Photo courtesy of Carpetbag Theatre.

A cornerstone of Southern theater celebrates 50 years of art and community advocacy.

Founded in Knoxville, Tennessee, by actor and writer Wilmer F. Lucas and his wife, artist Cleopatra Lucas, Carpetbag Theatre (CBT) has been at the nexus of community, culture, and politics for the past five decades.  A product of the Black Arts Movement, CBT claimed its own aesthetic, challenging a predominantly white American theater establishment by creating original productions that reflected pride in black history and culture as well as the Appalachian South.

Under the direction of award-winning playwright Linda Parris-Bailey, CBT has stayed true to its founders’ mission.  Inventive and inherently political, the company’s critically acclaimed productions have ranged from spoken-word operas to sobering dramas, all serving what Parris-Bailey describes as “the community’s need to hear stories that validate and strengthen us.” 

In 2019, the multigenerational ensemble group marked two milestones: its 50th anniversary and, as Parris-Bailey prepared to step down after 45 years, a transition to new leadership.  To ensure that the nonprofit was on a path to long-term sustainability, Parris-Bailey worked closely with CBT’s managing director, Jonathan Clark, who succeeds her as executive and artistic director.  Among the 2020 priorities: rededicating CBT’s commitment to youth programming, growing and strengthening its staff, and deepening its investment in and connection to the Knoxville community.

actors on stageCarpetbag Theatre's September 2019 production of "Red Summer." Photo courtesy of Carpetbag Theatre.

To help Carpetbag achieve those goals and fortify overall operations, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has provided support through the Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative (COHI).  A multi-phase program designed to improve the structural and financial health of arts organizations that have been inequitably served by philanthropy through cohort-based grants, COHI was established by the Foundation in partnership with National Performance Network (NPN), an artist support organization based in New Orleans.  In 2015, NPN and the investment advisory Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) teamed up to create Leveraging a Network for Equity (LANE), a targeted initiative to address the unique sustainability challenges faced by arts organizations of color.  With Mellon’s support, LANE has in turn supported multi-year cohort based learning and technical assistance services, along with recovery capital and general operating funds to a cohort of organizations, including Carpetbag. 

“At its core, LANE’s investments are about remediation of decades of underfunding and divestment,” says Sage Crump, a culture strategist with NPN who manages LANE.  “What we say is, how do we uplift these organizations that have been functioning for so long without substantive support? We help them amplify existing resources.”

Change capital from COHI made it possible for CBT to hire a marketing director who received training from an experienced consultant familiar with the challenges of promoting to local audiences who often decide to buy tickets just days before a performance.  In celebration of its 50th, CBT has remounted a series of its most memorable plays.  Over four nights this past September at Knoxville’s historic Bijou Theatre, the company staged Red Summer, a drama written by Parris-Bailey and based on the city’s notorious race riots of 1919.  “As a direct result of the marketing, we had more people see those performances than all of our local productions of the past decade,” says Clark.

“I want to be sure that we are even more dedicated to our mission of creating more opportunities for our community to tell its stories.”

“For us COHI is a validation of the work we’ve been doing for 50 years,” he adds. “It also gives us a lot of credibility. More people are asking, hey, what have you guys been up to?”

Clark wants to raise awareness in particular of the Parris-Bennett Digital Story House.  In 2017, a board member facilitated the donation of a house in East Knoxville, and funds from COHI went toward refurbishing and upgrading the property.  The space now provides offices as well as a multipurpose room accommodating both events and a storytelling lab where community members—such as local veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—can craft their own narratives using movie-making software, iPads, and other digital tools.

Digital Story House “gives us an opportunity to tell people, ‘Even though our performances are all over the city, you can find us here,’” says Parris-Bailey.

A permanent performance space is a missing piece that Clark hopes to fill in.  “Next year, I really want to focus on obtaining our own theater here in East Knoxville,” he says.  “And I want to be sure that we are even more dedicated to our mission of creating more opportunities for our community to tell its stories.”  One such story in progress is Bricks, a play written by Clark about his family’s and the region’s history with industrialization and black enterprise that will incorporate hip-hop.

As much as he’s embracing new ideas, Clark is mindful of CBT’s history.  “You have to credit Linda, and the staff before us,” he says.  “They were thinking way ahead of their time.”