Nicole Acosta was just a few months into her new job as Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Marketing Director when MCT Artistic Director Brent Hazelton approached her about turning her HOOPs Project – a multimedia art installation featuring global majority women and their hoop earrings – into a play.
“I couldn’t initially wrap my head around it,” Acosta admitted, during a recent phone interview. “I couldn’t see how my photographs of women wearing their hoops” – the gorgeous centerpiece in Acosta’s installation – “could be turned into a play.”
But Hazelton persisted.
“A theater adaptation of Nicole’s HOOPS Project series, focusing on hoop earrings as well as the stories of the women who wear them and the cultures in which they are so deeply rooted, checks literally every single box on the list of ways we hope to serve our community,” Hazelton said to me.
“The play is a wonderfully energetic celebration of people and stories that are not celebrated nearly enough on our stages, either in our own community or the mainstream American theater,” Hazelton continued.
Written by rapidly rising L.A.-based playwright Eliana Pipes – who was chosen for MCT’s play commission with input from Acosta – HOOPS also includes original music by Milwaukee-based composer Britney “B ⁓ Free” Freeman-Farr. It begins performances on March 10 as MCT’s entry in the World Premiere Wisconsin play festival.
Circling Back to the Beginning
Acosta’s HOOPS Project began as a photo shoot promoting an exhibit for the Milwaukee-based LUNA (Latinas Unidas en las Artes), a Latinx artists’ collective that includes Acosta – a first-generation Mexican – among its members. Acosta photographed hoop-wearing LUNA artists in her living room, while asking them to answer the question, “what do hoop earrings mean to you?”
“I got the idea of everyone in the exhibit assembling with their hoops on,” Acosta said. “As people of Latinx descent, we’re practically born wearing hoops; our ears are pierced as babies, and hoops of gradually increasing size are an integral part of our growing up. They’re an important cultural symbol for us, and for global majority women around the world.”
Acosta’s photographs – and the oral histories accompanying them – went viral, resulting in an expansion of the project that involved Acosta photographing and interviewing women from New York to Los Angeles. The resulting exhibit – on display at the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network in Milwaukee’s Third Ward – is arresting and powerful.
But that doesn’t make it a play – any more than photographer Michael Cunningham and oral historian Craig Marberry’s beautiful book Crowns, an album of Black women and their hats, is a musical. The stage version of Crowns needed the amazing Regina Taylor to transform a book into a justly celebrated musical. Acosta’s project needed a similarly skilled playwright.
Pipes has delivered, and then some.
Her play features an often hilarious Greek chorus. Moving monologues, fashioned from Pipes’ own interviews with many of the women Acosta has photographed. And Brechtian interludes exploring heady topics such as the tension between tradition and modernity as well as cultural appropriation.
“What Eliana was able to do with these stories was mind-blowing to me,” Acosta said. “It feels like a complete transformation of the HOOPS Project that pushes far beyond simply archiving a cultural symbol.” It is, in short, dramatic – moving forward even as it looks backward.
Video produced by Denielle Dix and Erin Maybin for the HOOPS Project
Re-Membering The Past
During an early February kickoff event for HOOPS within the gallery showcasing Acosta’s work, actors from the HOOPS cast performed a vignette, occurring early in Pipe’s play, involving two historians tussling over the cultural significance of hoop earrings
The more traditional historian focuses on hoop earrings’ Nubian origins. The second, pop-oriented historian insists that hoops “originated on Donna Summer.”
It’s all very funny, but Pipes uses this moment to examine much bigger issues.
How do people of color, whose history is frequently marginalized or suppressed, recover the past without being buried by it? How does one celebrate tradition while allowing it to breathe and evolve? And how does one ensure that such evolution doesn’t open the door to cultural appropriation by the likes of a hoop-wearing Hailey Bieber?
Pipes has asked such challenging questions before.
In her award-winning, wildly inventive play Dream Hou$e, a reality TV home remodeling show with a white host becomes a sometimes harrowing indictment of Anglo gentrification, of the sort that has been erasing Latinx history and communities in the Southwest since illegal land grabs in Texas culminated in the even more outrageous thievery known as the Mexican-American War.
“What does it cost to forget?,” asks one of the Latinx sisters struggling to hold onto a sense of who they are and where they’re from.
But just how should we remember, in a way that honors the past while living in the present? How, to invoke another scene from HOOPS involving a broken earring, does one mend what has been fractured so that it remains one’s own?
Reflecting on the HOOPS Project and Pipes’ play, Acosta posed a variation on such questions: “What does a body of work like this do for the community?,” she said.
Acosta would like to think that HOOPS can “break down stereotypes,” in a moment of post-pandemic racial reckoning in which “voices of people of color have been uplifted and highlighted.”
“Yes, appropriation is a thing, and it’s happening,” Acosta said. “But what’s different now is that Black and brown women are finding it easier to reclaim the narrative. We’re no longer so readily sitting back and remaining silent.”
“Maybe we just have to do it ourselves,” reflects one of the sisters toward the end of Dream Hou$e. “Be our own ancestors.”
Both Acosta’s project and Pipe’s play do just that, exercising agency while simultaneously inviting everyone into the circle they’ve made. “There’s room for people outside my culture to appreciate it,” Acosta insisted, “as long as they do so in a way that’s informed by respect.”
HOOPS runs from March 10-April 2 at the Studio Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. For tickets, go to https://www.milwaukeechambertheatre.org/hoops.