As the local improv performance group Playback Memphis showed this past Thursday, there is no better way to spark ideas for artwork than by making art. Sculptor Yvonne Bobo has been commissioned to create the District 6 Gateway sculpture for Southside Park at 612 South Parkway East, one of seven new landmarks commissioned in each of the City’s seven council districts. The artist, together with Playback Memphis and the UrbanArt Commission, invited community members to share their ideas, narratives, and histories of living in the South Memphis neighborhood during a participatory performance at the St Andrew Fellowteria.
Bobo’s innovative approach to collecting feedback from the community led to the engagement of Playback Memphis. Virginia Murphy, Artistic and Managing Director, defines playback theatre as a medium that “creates space for people to experience a high level of connectivity, communication, and empathy through the act of storytelling.” Master percussionist Ekpe Abioto set the beat for the seven Playback performers. The evening’s MC was Curtis Thomas, Deputy Executive Director of The Works, a South Memphis community development corporation.
Just as a piece of public artwork depends on the intellectual and sensory participation of its viewers, the Playback Memphis theatrical performances relied on audience engagement and contributions. One member of the improve acting troupe would begin by asking a volunteer from the audience to tell a little bit about their relation to South Memphis and share their experiences living in the neighborhood. The group of seven performers then turned an individual narrative into an interactive piece of art by animating the story through intricate movements, repetitive dialogue, and music. The series of captivating performances reflected the individual narratives that spoke of the continuing strength of the neighborhood, the welcoming atmosphere, the richness in musical history, and the inescapable attraction the area has on all who pass through. The performances, in short, transformed storytelling into performance art.
Artist Yvonne Bobo (left) will be using the narratives gathered from the audience to shape her ideas about her design for the new sculpture in Southside Park. The sculptor’s concept for a large-scale, abstract sculpture consists of multiple spheres positioned on archways like a string of pearls. The spheres will be etched with highlights from the storytelling workshop.
Southside Park is currently being renovated by the Memphis Division of Park and Neighborhood Services. The basketball court, an important part of the work, will be resurfaced to feature the Grizzlies colors, blue and yellow. Yvonne Bobo’s sculpture will serve as a landmark and District 6 identifier for the public.