After staging productions from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to the strawberry fields of California, StoryWorks, The Center for Investigative Reporting’s theater-meets-journalism initiative, headed to another location: the Mississippi Delta.
For 10 weeks this summer, Jennifer Welch, StoryWorks’ creative director, has worked with community members in Clarksdale, Mississippi, to produce “Beautiful Agitators,” an original play about the life and legacy of local civil rights activist Vera Mae Pigee.
Based on original interviews, research and reporting by young journalists in Clarksdale, “Beautiful Agitators” will explore the history of Pigee’s activism in the Delta, from her efforts mobilizing young people to registering thousands of African Americans to vote.
In partnership with Mississippi Today, a local nonprofit newsroom, StoryWorks will also apply a contemporary lens to Pigee’s story by examining the nature of civic engagement in Clarksdale today and how the town’s young and veteran leaders are shaping its development.
“Beautiful Agitators” will debut at Crossroads Cultural Arts Center in downtown Clarksdale on Aug. 4, 5 and 6. Each performance will be followed by a talkback with the cast, crew and local journalists to discuss the legacy of the civil rights movement in the Delta. Tickets are free, and can be reserved here.
Now in its fourth season of performances, StoryWorks typically commissions playwrights to create immediate artistic responses to original investigative stories and the issues at their core. Most recently, StoryWorks debuted a reading of “Journey to Emeraldville,” a play written by Eugenie Chan based on reporting by Shoshana Walter of Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and directed by Welch.
This Mississippi installment of StoryWorks is a little different because it did not begin with an investigation; it was developed from start to finish in collaboration with local journalists, writers and artists. The project is part of Reveal Labs, CIR’s emerging initiative to foster investigative reporting and creative community engagement in local communities around the country.
Since September, CIR has built collaborations in the Mississippi Delta and across the state through Reveal Labs to train and mentor the next generation of journalists while piloting community-based journalism experiments, including this StoryWorks project.
CIR started in Cleveland, Mississippi, just 45 minutes south of Clarksdale. There, CIR has helped support a new project called the Cleveland Yearbook, which will give a snapshot of Cleveland through portraits and interviews with people across the city. In May 2016, Cleveland made headlines when a federal judge ruled that the city’s high school and middle schools needed to consolidate under a desegregation order. Through the eyes of its people, the Yearbook aims to document how the city is negotiating these changes.
Led by recent graduates from Cleveland’s Delta State University – Charles Coleman, Aallyah Wright (now a reporter for Mississippi Today), Alecia Wilson and Nick Houston – the Cleveland Yearbook team has photographed and interviewed more than 150 residents. CIR is partnering with the Delta Arts Alliance to create a physical yearbook and local art installations from the material, and will pilot an after-school program for high school students to join the project this fall.
Coleman, Wright and Houston are all part of the core reporting and creative team for this summer’s StoryWorks as well. The idea for the play originated from Houston during a design session that CIR held with a small group of stakeholders in Clarksdale, including Chandra Williams of Crossroads Cultural Art Center, Fred Anklam, co-editor of Mississippi Today, and Chuck Rutledge and Ann Williams of the Clarksdale Collective.
Welch is serving as the inaugural artist-in-residence of the Clarksdale Collective, a group of artists, nonprofit professionals and developers who are launching arts-driven community and economic development projects to help revitalize downtown Clarksdale.
You can follow the #StoryWorksMS hashtag on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for behind-the-scenes dispatches from the StoryWorks team.