Monét Noelle Marshall is performance artist, director and choreographer known for her thought-provoking, community-driven projects that explore race, identity, and gender. She is one of two recipients of the 2018 Mary B. Regan Artist Residency Award, a North Carolina Arts Council grant designed to support innovative art projects that impact communities. Monét is using the grant to present “Buy My Art and Call It Holy” a 10-day project that premieres in Durham on Friday December 7th, which she describes below.
Interview and Video by Sandra Davidson*
Let’s start with your North Carolina roots. How did you end up in the Triangle?
I am originally from Long Island — the Strong Island — New York, but my roots have always been in North Carolina. My mama grew up on a tobacco farm in Greenville, NC, so I spent lots of time here. I went to North Carolina A&T and got a BFA in Theater and ended [up] in the Triangle. I’ve been here for six-and-a-half years.
I auditioned for shows [when] I came here mainly because I don’t know how other adults make friends. That introduction to the Triangle’s art scene was invaluable. At that time there wasn’t an active black theater company, [and] black folks [have] such a rich history here. Because my mother is also a playwright and a director we were like, “Well why don’t we start one?” And we started Mojoaa Performing Arts Company which will be five years old in May.
Will you talk about your journey to becoming an artist?
I really got it honest. I really do get it from my mama. She is a consummate artist. Recently someone called me a healer, and I think healer and artist often go together. When I look back at the line of the women in my mom’s line…my great-grandmother was a woman you went to in the neighborhood when you were sick because she would tell you what herbs to take. My grandmother traveled in Greenville and eastern North Carolina teaching folks how to make healthy meals. My mama is a dancer, writer, and choreographer, and her most popular piece that she choreographed was called healing and it’s still done by folks and dance ministries. Then there is me. I think part of my healing is to show where I’m hurting, and where I’m trying to move, and how I’m trying to heal and I’m hoping that my story and my truth will help other folks too.
How do you plan to use the Mary B. Regan award?
With the Mary B. Regan Community Artist Award, I am creating “Buy My Art And Call It Holy.” It is a 10-day performance project in Durham, North Carolina across five locations. This performance is about exploring, believing, declaring that we are all inherently art and inherently holy. This piece is the third installment in the “Buy It Call It” trilogy, a performance art experience that I’ve been working on this year. I really feel like this trilogy is this beautiful assembly and mix of all my worlds coming together. There are folks from Mojoaa, Man Bites Dog, Raleigh and Durham [involved]. I’m just really grateful.
Each installment of your trilogy has involved a large cast. Will you describe your process for involving community in your projects?
I think in another life I could have been a talent scout because I’m just really good at seeing people’s gifts. Some of the members of the cast have traveled throughout these three pieces. For instance, CJ Suitt—he was a tour guide for the first one, he performed in the second one, and he’s associate director for this one. His background is poetry. My dear friend Derrick Beasley who is a photographer, graphic designer, curator, and visual artist created the marketing images for the last two shows. He’s now he’s our director of archival footage. A.Yonni Jeffries, who is a singer and performer, has been in all the shows, and I’m really grateful. Then there are folks who are not artists that anyone knows, but they are so deeply artistic. It’s really important for folks to know that a lot of these people are not specialized artists. They are folks who were willing to say yes to my wild ideas. I don’t know if people understand how impactful it’s been for folks in my community to be like, “What do you need? How can we make this happen?” Because it makes me feel like they see the vision.
That desire to empower all kinds of people to explore their own creativity is a driving theme in this final installment of your trilogy. Why is it that?
One of the things I deeply believe is that when people have a moment to be intentionally creative and try a new thing and risk and it isn’t a dangerous risk…when we have that we don’t leave it in rehearsal. We don’t leave it in the room. We take that energy out into our lives and into our civic spaces. If I believe that I’m an artist and I believe that I’m holy and I believe that about you, I’m going to take an extra moment to remember your humanity. I’m going to be more graceful with the way that I deal with you with, with the way that I speak to you, with the policies that I create when I consider you when I think about your housing and when I think about your children. If I believe that I’m an artist, I know that I can create a new world in which my desires exist. If we remember that then we don’t lose hope.
As an artist I think my biggest gift is to not be selfish. How can we share it, and share it, and share it? Because it’s not just ours. It belongs to all of us. I’m grateful to be an artist in community and to be able to do that and to be trusted. Because I do recognize that is both a responsibility and a privilege.
What are your hopes for the project?
One of my hopes for this third piece is that I will get to spend time [and] build a relationships with folks I don’t know yet. [I hope] there are folks that are going to see the poster or see a video or see a social media post and something in their spirit is going to call them to come, even if we don’t know each other. I’m also super hopeful for the relationships that will be built outside of me. [I hope that] a person who comes to the meditation is like, “Oh that felt good I think I’m going to start meditating.” Or [that] the folks who’ve never been in The Durham Hotel before because maybe they didn’t feel comfortable going, get to come and have a really delicious meal with other people and don’t have to reach into their pockets for anything.
I guess my biggest hope is for someone to walk away feeling shifted…really feeling like, “Oh I’m valuable. I am art. I am holy. I deserve to live a good life… the life I want, and I have the tools to make it, and I live in a community where this is possible.”
*This interview was edited and condensed. For a full schedule of the “Buy My Art And Call It Holy” project, visit www.buyitcallit.com.