The Table/La Mesa: The Welcome Project

Dorchester/Roxbury, MA

Contact Name
Melissa Nussbaum Freeman
Project Dates
1/20/2017 - present
Social action and justice, Placemaking/placekeeping, Event
Red Sage Stories was initially created as part of NEFA's Creative City Project "La Mesa/The Table;THE WELCOME PROJECT" in January 2017. Founder/director Melissa Nussbaum Freeman trained interested Dorchester/Roxbury artists in Playback Theatre and other performance skills in order to dramatize stories told by community residents. A devised play called "The Bus" combined true stories gathered at unlikely performance sites in Dorchester and Roxbury and was performed at those same places as well as for 600 neighbors at the Dudley St. Neighborhood Initiative's annual meeting. Beyond the project, Red Sage Stories found that Playback Theatre helped many local groups integrate live art into their social engagement. Since its beginning, RSS has performed 62 times at 31 different venues.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
Specific goals were: form a community based ensemble; create successful interventions at The Table; devise and perform a play that addressed the issue of inclusion at a time where xenophobia and racism was at the forefront of the national dialogue. Additionally, an important goal was to provide community residents access to a theatrical experience that reflected the personal and social issues of their stories in the three main languages (English, Spanish, and Cape Verdean Creole) spoken in this community. Public, interactive, free, and multi-lingual theatre in Dorchester/Roxbury by members of the community was an opportunity to offer back to the community the heart of their own stories, increase understanding of the "other", and entertain. A warm and welcoming environment in the dead of winter was a part of the project design.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Once the goal of forming a community based ensemble was achieved, Red Sage Stories began responding to other community initiatives and our goal to perform expanded.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
DSNI was the partner institution. DSNI's Arts Manager, Ramona Lisa Alexander, provided guidance in creating a project timeline and in procuring rehearsal space at DSNI. Actors from the larger Playback Theatre community performed in the first performance offered at DSNI. Eight people who had some connection to the Dorchester/Roxbury community (residency, work, school, family, church or other community) trained and became the members of Red Sage Stories/Playback Theatre & Art for Social Change. Community organizers at DSNI shared their stories and watched actors create theatre on the spot. The Dudley Cafe owner, Biplaw Rai, donated space, tea and deserts during performances. Customers sat at the "welcome table", told their story and then witnessed the immediate and improvised dramatization. Leaders of the Nightingale Community Gardens were engaged in promoting the event; gardeners told their stories and saw them brought to life. In the lobby of the iconic Strand Theatre, local residents stopped by to tell their story and stayed to watch and comment on the experience. The final play, "The Bus", devised from these stories, was performed at the Dudley Cafe and the Strand Theatre Lobby but the day programmed to perform "The Bus" rain prohibited an outdoor performance so an alternate location was found indoors at a local shopping mall. The culminating
performance was for the 600 attendees at DSNI's Annual Meeting.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
Fundamental to the community development strategy of DSNI are inclusive, diverse, and innovative activities. By lifting up the voices of all the groups of the community, Red Sage Stories honors the unique voice of each teller while providing accompanying audience observers with the opportunity to discover the shared and common experience. This theatrical experience results in community building and enhanced understanding.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
The Table/La Mesa: the Welcome Project was the subsequent iteration of "The Door" - a project commissioned through ExpressingBoston, led by the Design Studio for Social Intervention and funded by the Barr Foundation and the Boston Foundation. The Door was an installation/performance piece that welcomed anyone who knocked on the door to anytime or place where they had not been welcomed. I was also inspired by being a "radical welcomer" and group facilitator at Anna Deavere Smith's play "Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education".

Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
Enlist Playback Theatre POC artists to perform at DSNI for public presentation and invitation to participate in The Table/La Mesa: The Welcome Project. Publicity of first event. Training for participants in Playback Theatre and other theatre skills. Field research for The Table sites. Four interactive events. Review and selection of stories for play. Devise script "The Bus". Rehearsals of "The Bus". Performance at sites and DSNI Annual Meeting.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
Originally, the project proposal was to audition and cast 5 actors. Interested community members who were not actors but rather artists (dancers, rappers, yoga teacher, Theatre of the Oppressed) showed up and all eight were invited to train and form Red Sage Stories. The timeline for training was expanded from 2 to 6 weeks.
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Untrained actors. Economic pressures prevented participants from rehearsing with regularity.
I found myself wearing too many hats - administrator, director, trainer, actor, publicist, transporter, photographer.
Wider distribution of publicity.

Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Readjusting the timeline to provide time to train actors. Reallocating Creative City grant funds to give stipends for attending rehearsals as well as performances. Delegating tasks and inviting troupe members to take a more active role in the running of the company and project. The partner organization, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, increased their support by providing graphic design, printing of flyers and distribution.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Assess talent before creating training schedule and time line for project. 2. Establish early on a participatory and professional artist culture within the ensemble through a collective process of designing project mission, group and individual expectations and responsibilities. 3. Enlist community groups as co-sponsors and active participants in each event.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
All of the stories dramatized and the final play "The Bus" clearly demonstrated the power of this project to connect to the social, economic, and cultural issues in our community. The overarching story of "The Bus" captured one young Roxbury resident's experience of "being Black while waiting for a bus" was mistakenly accused by police, detained and frisked. When the bus arrived the driver decided to wait for the young man's release. Meanwhile, the other passengers told their stories. When the young man was let go, he was heartily welcomed on the bus.
As a result of this project, community groups consider Red Sage Stories and performative arts as a dynamic tool to engage the public in meetings, events and street fairs.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
All of the goals as stated above were achieved.
How did you measure this success or progress?
The diversity and number of participants at each Table site exceeded our expectations. The depth of the stories gave us rich material to devise "The Bus". Anecdotally, community residents reported in our notebook for contacts and comments feeling "deeply listened to", "you elevated voices and brought us together in a way that I didn't know was possible", "you brought out the sunshine on a rainy day", "thank you for sharing your talents".
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
Unexpectedly, Red Sage Stories was recognized as a community resource within a few months of beginning the project. Two years since its inception we are helping to bridge silos and give voice to many sectors of the Dorchester/Roxbury and Greater Boston community: Cape Verdean Seniors, LGBTQ, gardeners from 9 different countries, interfaith youth leaders, returning adult learners, veterans, police, survivors of rape, abuse and gun violence. We have raised awareness about HIV, abortion, composting and celebrated unsung heroes.
Another unexpected impact is that in 2018, 10 members have earned a supplemental income averaging $2000. We now expect continued growth as a professional troupe and recognition of the potential of our work for cultivating a culture of social equity & justice.