Monét Marshall: Director, Producer, Artist

Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity. 

Photo: Chris Charles

Photo: Chris Charles

Monét Noelle Marshall is a Durham, North Carolina-based artist, director & producer. She serves as the Founding Artistic Director of MOJOAA Performing Arts Company, producing new works by and new opportunities for Black playwrights. Marshall explores the ways that bodies, particularly those of Black women, are used, manipulated, curated and crafted to make political statements, both with and without their consent. She does this in public spaces through performance art experiences and public art programs and in more private spaces like dance parties and her kitchen. She is currently working on The Buy It Call It Trilogy, which includes Buy My Soul And Call It Art which premiered January 2018, Buy My Body And Call It A Ticket in June 2018 and Buy My Art And Call It Holy premiering December 7-16, 2018. Info about that show can be found at buyitcallit.com. You can learn more about her upcoming work at MonetNoelleMarshall.com.

You do a lot of different types of art. You work with visual art and you’re also a writer and a choreographer.

[I also do] Puppetry, dance, theater.

How do all these different types of art interact with or inform each other?

I find the story first. And then the story tells me what medium it needs. I’m a big title person so I’ll think of the title and then from the title I have the story and then from the story I’ll say oh this is actually a performance art piece or this is a more traditional theater piece or this is a dance. So the content informs the form. Sometimes I say to myself, I don’t do that. I don’t make film or I don’t make those things. But then I end up doing it or finding the people that help me facilitate it.

So you really try not to put limits on yourself.

No. I mean, I know the places where I’m most trained. I know the places where I feel really skilled. But at the same time there are so many other things that I want to try and do. And I don’t want to tell the story that I can’t exist the way that I need to because I’m afraid.

What has surprised you most about trying these different art forms?

That people trust me as much as they do. I’m working on this performance art trilogy called The Buy It Call It Trilogy. When I did the first [show] I cast 24 people – some people I’d worked with for years, some people who dance, some [friends] who happened to mention at brunch with me I haven’t performed in so long and I miss it. And some people I am not that close with but I’ve seen the way they move in community and I thought they’d be a great fit for this. 

But I didn’t tell them what they were doing.  So we got to the first rehearsal and they still did not know what they were doing. Mind you, the first rehearsal was on a Monday and the show was opening that following Friday. And I went around first and asked everyone why they were here. And almost everyone said, because I trust you. It just really affirmed me and confirmed the way that I make art – for my community and with my community. And even if it travels it’s for the people here. So that’s been surprising in the best way.

I think sometimes it’s really easy to imagine failure and prepare ourselves for failure. For me it’s much harder to imagine success. 

Your Buy It Call It Trilogy – what was the initial idea that sparked that trilogy?

Photo: Derrick Beasley

Photo: Derrick Beasley

One – anger. Just feeling like as artists we are having conversations around value and art. And for me it’s really difficult to talk about capitalism and value and not talk about race. Especially in the American South. Especially as someone who has a lineage of enslaved folks and sharecroppers in North Carolina. And the ways my family has not been able to create wealth for itself because of oppression. So to then talk about value in the arts in the South and to not add that layer of race felt really difficult. 

How can we speak on this honestly and how can I show up in this conversation? Feeling angry because it’s always on the onus of black people and folks of color to bring that conversation to the table. While at the same time we exist in a belief of the faux liberalism of art. We always believe that art is this liberal space and that we are so progressive and we don’t have those issues. That’s them and this is us. Even while we are enacting [those same issues] every day all the time as artists. So I just had a lot of anger and fatigue around it. 

And I was also tired of always being the one – or one of a few – that gets invited to conversations to be eloquent and articulate and quote-unquote brave. To say the things others haven’t said – and of course people always snap [and validate it]. But what are we doing about it? And I’m actually tired of talking about this even though I will probably talk about it for the rest of my life. I need to make some work about it so that we can have a real conversation and not because I was invited to someone else’s table.

So I was in my iPhone notes because I’m a millennial and that’s where I write my ideas sometimes (laughs). And I had two titles: Buy My Soul and Call It Art and Buy My Body and Call It a Ticket. So I go to Jamaica Gilmer who is a brilliant artist and photographer and administrator and friend and I read her both of the titles and she said, “it sounds like you’re doing a series because those titles sound like two different shows to me.” And I was like, hm. Like when your friends are right but they just made so much more work for you! (laughs) So that’s how those two shows [came into existence]. 

And then the third show, which is coming in December, is called Buy My Art and Call It Holy. So that’s how it became a trilogy and it really feels like for me three parts of an introduction. The first being: I see it – I see these institutions and these practices. We engage in them because we have to but I’m not fooled.The second one is: This is who I am, this is my body, this is what I’ve got, these are my arms and honestly anything you can say about me I’ve already said it and I’ve said it in front of my momma. There’s nothing you can say that I haven’t thought of and said out in public. Then I let people write on my body.

And then the third [performance is] about my belief that as a queer black woman creating work in the south the creations of my mind and body and spirit are grace. And I’m speaking of grace defined in the Christian tradition which means things we are given that are not earned. This country has not earned the gifts and the labor of my mind, body and spirit and yet I give them anyway and that is a sacred act. So no matter what dollar amount you put on my art actually it can’t measure up to what’s deserved to black women and to women in general. 

As a queer black woman creating work in the south the creations of my mind and body and spirit are grace. And I’m speaking of grace defined in the Christian tradition which means things we are given that are not earned. This country has not earned the gifts and the labor of my mind, body and spirit and yet I give them anyway and that is a sacred act.
— Monét Marshall

So that takes the capitalist system right out of it.

Yes, for me I am defining holiness as value beyond capital. 

How can we get this country and the world to value art and creativity more highly and what would the world look like if we did?

I’ve been reading Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown. And one of the things she talks about is bio-mimicry, the idea of [watching] how other organisms do things to learn from them. So I’ve been thinking a lot about fractals. That’s one thing she teaches about in the book. Thinking about a fern and the shape of the leaf is the same shape as the cluster of leaves. And so basically you start small and that’s the same shape and you mirror that shape outward. I bring that up to say I think it’s really difficult to have a conversation about art and our nation and the world if we don’t first think about – OK, how do I value art?  How does my community, state, region, etcetera value art? 

To that end, I feel like we have to help create a world in which art is part of everyone’s life. And it already is, but how do we make it more explicit? I think about the ways my grandmother would make these homemade yeast rolls and she’d roll them into these beautiful crescent shapes and no part of her acknowledged that she was making art. 

If we don’t feel like we are practicing art and arts are present in our lives then we aren’t going to value it because we don’t see it.

And so one of my things is how can we let folks know that the outfit you chose to wear today is art. The way you styled your hair is art. The way you move down the street is art. The lilt of your voice is art. You are actually living an artful life. And if you believe that [then] we can see it and value it in our outside expression as well and then it bubbles outward from there. 

Especially for folks who don’t often see themselves represented, they have to be affirmed, whether that’s folks with disabilities, undocumented folks or queer black youth. You are creating something of value and it is artful. 

If we believe that our existence is artful and the existence of other folks is artful then we’d be less likely to throw each other away. Because we throw away trash, we throw away things that don’t matter, we throw away things we feel are useless to us. We don’t throw away things we think are beautiful or that bring us joy or pleasure. We hold onto those things. Even if we look at a piece of art and think I don’t know if that’s for me we still take a moment to take it in, we don’t discount it right away.

We would move slower and more intentionally and with more care for one another if we believed that. And for me yes I love art and I practice it in lots of different ways. But if our art is not actually helping us to create better worlds and practice humanity better then what is the actual point? I think about the museum in Brazil that just burned down. And that is a loss. And if the people in that neighborhood don’t feel any shift in their lives because that museum burnt down, then that museum was not doing its job.

You’ve segued into my next question. What does it mean to live a creative life?

It’s living a life of choice. Having the power to choose, being intentional in that choice – not living mindlessly. Living a life of my own making. But then in a more tangible way as someone who makes a living in creative pursuits my livelihood exists because I’m in community with other folks. I could never go live in a cabin in the woods and come back with the great American novel. (laughs) I’m a little bit of an extrovert. 

Augusto Boal created Theatre of the Oppressed. And he would say that Theatre of the Oppressed is art for the revolution. And I believe that. I want to rehearse not for revolution but for liberation – after the work of revolution is done. And in that space we’re going to trust one another. We’re going to say yes and. If something doesn’t work we’re going to try it again and there’s no shame. 

So yes I want to live creatively. Yes I want people to come to shows. But in reality I want to take those practices out into our lives.   

If we believe that our existence is artful and the existence of other folks is artful then we’d be less likely to throw each other away. Because we throw away trash, we throw away things that don’t matter, we throw away things we feel are useless to us. We don’t throw away things we think are beautiful or that bring us joy or pleasure.
— Monét Marshall

What are some creative challenges you have experienced and how did you move through them or how are you trying to move through them? 

My major creative challenge is fear. 

That’s hard to believe! You seem really brave.

Yeah, bravery as in do it scared. I deal with depression and anxiety and in my creativity I can be really creative about all the ways something can fail.

Oh yes. I think it was Deepak Chopra who said, “The best use of imagination is creativity. The worst use of imagination is anxiety.”

In the last show there’s a prelude and in the recorded audio I say, “this is me doing it scared.” Ever since I was a young person people have been telling me oh you’re so confident, you’re so brave, when in reality I am scared most of the time for all types of reasons. So that’s definitely been a creative challenge.

How do you push through?

In the same way that people told me that they showed up because they trusted me I also trust them. I feel like we’re a mirror together. If you trust me, then you trusting me means that I’m trustworthy. That helps me to be brave. Also being accountable to other people helps. Even when I am scared I can be honest about being scared and be vulnerable. I’ve started many a rehearsal by saying “Y’all, I don’t know what I’m doing.” Having a community practice helps.

When I’m doing something solo I think about why I am doing it. Pamela Thompson [co-founder of The Beautiful Project with Jamaica Gilmer] spoke at the VAE Summit and said, “Do the thing because you must. Not just because you want to or it feels nice but do it because you must.” And for me if I’m doing something really vulnerable I have to remember that there’s something about me that has to put this out in the world. And usually it’s because I’m selfish (laughs) and I’m like, there was a 16-year-old version of me that I wish knew this. Or there’s going to be a 50-year-old version of me that needs to look back at this moment. 

So even when there’s no one else I think about the future and past versions of me and then I also consider my possible future children. 

A scene from  Buy My Soul and Call it Art  (Photo: Derrick Beasley)

A scene from Buy My Soul and Call it Art (Photo: Derrick Beasley)

What or who are some creative influences you’ve found on your creative journey? 

Number one is my momma. My mother is a consummate artist. She is a playwright, a writer, a director, a choreographer, a visual artist. She does it all. But watching the way that she made art with other people really touched me, particularly watching her start something new. She went back to school when I was ten. So I got to watch her go back to school. And she studied theater, so she’d take me to rehearsals. And then she started a dance ministry and I watched her build that. And even when she made mistakes I saw that too. And she was very honest with me, she never treated me like I was just a kid. I choreographed my first dance when I was 11 or 12. And I showed it to her. And instead of saying “oh that was so sweet,” she said, “I really liked that. Teach it to me.” And then she taught it to her dance ministry. Then the pastor of my church learned it. And so nobody can tell me that I’m not a real artist because my mother has been telling me I’m a real artist since I was eleven. 

And my artistic partner and friend Derrick Beasley. He’s a photographer and visual artist and graphic designer and curator. We share a studio together. He inspires me because he keeps me in check. He’s a same age mentor.

It’s important to have those because you’re going through the same stuff together.

Yes, we’re figuring this out right now. He challenges me to think about things differently and to make sure it still aligns with my values.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to use their creative gifts?

Find what brings you joy. Joy is a compass toward the things we are meant to do. If we follow it we’ll find a thing we are already creative in. For me creative energy is spiritual, something is always pulling us in a direction. Find your joy, your pleasure, that you could spend hours doing. And then dial that up. If you’re doing it for five minutes then take it to ten. That energy will spread across the rest of your day, week, month, life. And then share it. If you share the thing then you’ll find your people. That helps sustain your creative life. 

One of my favorite stories about Nina Simone is when the church was bombed and the four little girls were murdered in Birmingham her husband came home to find her building a gun in the garage. He asked her what she was doing and she said, “I’m building a gun.” And he asked why and she said, “the music doesn’t matter anymore.” And he said, “no it does matter. Go make music.” And that’s when she wrote Mississippi Goddamn. In the midst of it all art is essential.

This interview has been edited and condensed.