The NOLA Project theater company performs in various venues in New Orleans, but it may be best known for its buoyant outdoor productions in the?Besthoff?sculpture garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night's Dream” was the first collaboration between the theater company and the museum, in 2011.
“A Midsummer Night's Dream” also seems to have been the last coproduction for The NOLA Project and NOMA. The classic comedy, which was reprised in May 2023, closed just a few weeks before the institutions parted ways.
The reason for the separation depends on whom you ask.
The problem apparently started this summer when The NOLA Project proposed producing a 37-year-old play titled “The Colored Museum” by Black playwright George C. Wolfe. The play is a series of skits satirizing racist stereotypes. The set is typically meant to resemble empty museum galleries. So this play wouldn’t be performed in the sculpture garden; it would be staged inside the museum.
The NOLA Project wanted the show to run in January. But NOMA wanted to postpone it. According to NOMA Director of Marketing and Communications Charlie Tatum, the reason for the delay was to place the provocative play in better context.
“NOMA staff asked to defer the timing of the production so that the museum could develop additional programming to be presented alongside the production,” Tatum wrote in an email. “The goal was to thoughtfully consider the relationship between site and content.”
According to Tatum, instead of waiting, the theater company said it would search for another venue to stage the play.
Same situation, different perspective?
Monica R. Harris, The NOLA Project’s interim managing director, sees things differently.
Harris said that the museum decided to delay the play without negotiation. “Dialogue was not on the table with NOMA,” she said.
The theater company’s website characterized NOMA’s position as a rejection of the play, which NOMA insists it was not.
Tatum, of NOMA, said the word "negotiate" may not be “the correct word to characterize how programs come to be” at the 112-year-old museum, but that the staff was always open to dialogue.
Wrote Tatum: “NOMA’s partnerships are based not on negotiation nor the museum’s ability to approve or reject programs — but rather on collaborating to thoughtfully develop offerings together for our audiences. NOMA staff? reached out to discuss the production and remained in ongoing conversation with the NOLA Project about presenting ‘The Colored Museum’ until the company shared its decision to end the organizational partnership.”
All the world's a stage
Harris pointed out that NOMA has allowed The NOLA Project to produce controversial plays inside its walls in the past. “The Revolutionists,” which the company performed in the museum in 2018, is “undeniably feminist,” she said. And “White,” which was staged inside NOMA early this year, addressed cultural appropriation and other cultural missteps. As Harris put it, “The Colored Museum” is “a satire that very much speaks to the time.”
And this is, of course, a time of racial reckoning.
The New Orleans Museum of Art has had a contentious few years. In 2020, a group of five former NOMA employees publicly accused the museum of “institutional racism” and called for a dismantling of its hiring and exhibition practices to better represent the majority Black community it purports to serve.
Not long after, the museum management issued an “Agenda for Change,” that apologized for its past failings and promised to increase the percentage of non-White board members and employees.
In a way, the theater group and NOMA had been on parallel paths. In a post on its website in 2020, The NOLA Project pledged to diversify its predominantly White cast, seat more non-White board members and produce more plays by non-White people. By 2022, according to The NOLA Project's website, its cast was almost half people of color, and the board of directors was almost one-third non-White.
Meanwhile,?NOMA had made progress on its inclusivity agenda, instituting racial sensitivity training, acquiring more BIPOC art and revising its hiring strategy.
"Of all new employees hired since January 2022, 43% are non-white," Tatum wrote.
But in June, the administration announced that it had hired a White curator to oversee the museum’s prize African art collection. While Amanda Maples holds sterling credentials, there was some community blowback over what was perceived as a missed opportunity to further NOMA's diversity goals.
The controversy over the new curator took place the month before The NOLA Project announced it was saying goodbye to NOMA. Both sides say the one thing had nothing to do with the other.
As Tatum put it, “Conversations between NOMA and NOLA Project staff about the production began before the announcement of the museum’s new curator of African Art, and publicity following the appointment was not discussed or considered between the organizations.”
Harris said that “the hiring of the African art curator was not a deciding factor in the conversations that TNP was already having in regards to our partnership with NOMA.”
Harris said it’s too soon to name the venue, but she’s certain the company will present “The Colored Museum” sometime in the spring.
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