Embracing multiple truths is not easy in a culture that prefers binaries, that tends to simplify complex realities into good/bad, right/wrong, etc.
Yet multiple truths exist.
We find them woven throughout the story of the Montford Park Players and their $1/year lease of the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre with the City of Asheville, which renews on October 31.
The story is one of significant cultural contributions to our community, and also one of particular access to institutional support.
The following historical reflections and future considerations (with explicit awareness of race) lean into complexity with the heartfelt intention of increasing positive possibility.
May they contribute to more nuanced and expansive conversations and action around the amphitheater and countless other community resources.
Starting in a city park
As she told it, Hazel Robinson, who is white, was motivated to start a Shakespeare Company at a New Year’s Eve party at John Cram’s home, December 31, 1972. A man at the party (whose name she later forgot) encouraged her to start a company, and offered to connect her with Director of Parks & Recreation for the City of Asheville, Ray Kisiah, which he did. Kisiah, who is also white, was enthusiastic about the idea and became an advocate. Robinson was soon on her way to being known as Asheville’s “first lady of theater.”
Once the decision to start a company was made, Hazel’s husband John suggested Montford Park as the location for performances, as it was near their home. Kisiah granted them access to the park for their performances and furnished boards for their stage. The Montford Park Players (MPP) began holding shows in 1973.
At that time, the Montford and Stumptown/Hill Street neighborhood (census tracts 2 and 3) was 56% Black and home to 34% of Asheville’s total Black population (U.S. Census). The northern section of the neighborhood where Montford Park is located (census tract 3), was still majority white, though there were a significant number of Black neighbors.
According to a UNC Asheville senior thesis, “One of the early issues facing MPP was the way in which the local Black community reacted to the new organization… On several occasions in the first year of MPP’s existence some of the younger members of the Black community openly expressed their antipathy. Indeed, as Ray Kisiah revealed in an interview, the actors had to on several occasions in their first year contend with neighborhood children going so far as to throw rocks at them or even the audience” (Shakespeare on a Shoestring: A History of the Montford Park Players, Adrian Suskauer, 2015).
In response, “Parks and Recreation took it upon themselves as co-sponsors of the MPP to hire their own security task force.”
While the harassment of the MPP was quelled by the presence of the security guards provided by the City of Asheville, “it would not be an exaggeration to say that the people living near Montford Park did not all immediately take to the idea of having a Shakespeare company in their midst,” writes Suskauer. Though of course others did.
The appendix of Suskauer’s thesis includes a photo of an early MPP performance which shows a security guard standing behind an all white audience (and white performers) with one Black boy sitting off to the side. Suskauer says the photo “indicates a disparity between the racial makeup of the neighborhood and that of the audience.” He also writes, “The presence of this single Black child, isolated from the rest of the onlookers, would seem to suggest that at the very least the African American community was not particularly interested in the spectacle offered by MPP.”
As the company continued, Robinson shared with Suskauer that, along with the individual and corporate donor base MPP was able to build, “the help they obtained from Parks & Rec, and Ray Kisiah in particular, has been instrumental in helping them to thrive and prosper…Starting with MPP’s agreement with Parks & Rec to use Montford Park as a playing space, as well as the latter’s donation of wood to construct the stage, the relationship between the two entities has been long and fruitful, especially for the Players.”
Over the years, Kisiah did a number of favors for the MPP, including leveraging his social capital by participating as an actor in a play. In 1978, City and County Parks & Recreation departments built the MPP a stage in City-County Plaza which they used for a short period of time. However, the biggest gift Kisiah (and therefore the City of Asheville) gave the company came in the early 1980s.
The gift of an amphitheater
As Robinson recalled, “Ray called me one day and said I’ve got some good news for you..you’re going to have a proper amphitheater…it’s HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] money and it was supposed to go for picnic shelters, but we have enough.’” Regarding Kisiah, Suskauer writes, “His actions were not, strictly speaking, within the ethical bounds of his office in that he used federal monies for non-allocated purposes.”
An official MPP history brochure reads, “due to the success and popularity of the company, the City of Asheville constructed the original amphitheater and stage house.”
Prior to that moment, primarily in the 1970s (Kisiah began with Parks & Rec in 1971), the City of Asheville had used eminent domain to acquire most of the homes and lots in the historically Black Stumptown neighborhood for a planned Montford Recreation Complex, which at the time they were initially calling Riverside Park. As far as I can tell, including “Stumptown” in the name of the recreation complex was never on the table, though it had been the name of that area since the 1880s.
Only partial records of the City’s acquisitions have been found to date. We do know that all of the properties in Stumptown on Morrow and Jersey Streets and most of those on Gay and Madison were bulldozed.
Leading up to the 1970s, the Stumptown neighborhood, while offering rich social supports, had experienced significant systemic disinvestment. Residents faced innumerable barriers and discrimination due to racism. Neighborhood “blight” and vulnerability resulted.
At least 80 Black families were displaced from Stumptown for the Montford Recreation Complex project. This loss is part of a larger story, parts of which have been told, though there is much more to be shared.
While our focus is the amphitheater, we can briefly consider the rest of the recreation complex as a whole.
Because of the needs of neighborhood families, there were Black leaders, including Oralene Simmons (who worked with Model Cities) and Ethel Waitfield, who advocated for the community center. There were also unmet promises made to them by the City regarding a much requested pool.
The Montford Community Center opened in 1978, with Simmons as director. Under her leadership, the center became an important social and cultural hub for the the entire neighborhood, and a haven for young people.
At the same time, I’ve been told that the baseball field built as part of the recreation complex was reserved by Parks & Rec for a citywide baseball league, and therefore neighborhood youth (who were mostly Black) had little to no access to playing there.
The MPP amphitheater, constructed in an area called “The Hollow” that had been Stumptown shared community greenspace, opened in 1983.
At this point Montford and Stumptown/Hill Street as a whole was 66% Black, and census tract 2, where the amphitheater is located, was 74% Black.
Of note is the fact that, next to the site of the amphitheater, the city claimed almost two dozen houses for the recreation complex, but that land has yet to be used to this day.
The new City-subsidized amphitheater increased the size of audiences MPP could host from 50 – 100 to 500 – 700 people. These audiences (and the performers) remained majority white, even while the surrounding neighborhood was almost 3/4 Black.
When I asked a Black friend who grew up in Montford in the 1980s if she ever went to MPP shows she said, “No, I never attended – to tell the truth, I did not feel welcome.”
That said, over the years Black actors (including Simmons) were part of Montford Park Players productions, and their friends and family must have attended shows. Also, in the early years of the Montford Community Center, while Simmons was running cultural arts programming there, some of her groups utilized the stage on occasion.
However, for the bulk of its existence, the amphitheater has primarily benefited white performers and audiences, specifically those who like Shakespeare.
We can appreciate what the MPP has built, mostly with volunteer time, and the years of free performances that they have gifted our community for decades. We can acknowledge and be thankful for the investments they’ve made into the amphitheater and surrounding property.
And, with their $1/year lease with the City confirmed to be renewed for another 5 years at the end of October, we are called to put their contributions in context.
A well-deserved tribute to her extraordinary contributions to the performing arts in Asheville, in 1997 the City renamed the amphitheater the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre.
In 2006 John Russell became the first employee and CEO of the MPP, and since then has worked on “growing the audience and enhancing the audience experience” (MPP website). What began as neighborhood-based theater reached further and further afield. In 2012 the Montford Park Players received $125,000 from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s newly established Tourism Product Development Fund. According to their website, “in 2018, MPP recorded the highest attendance in our history with over 18,000.” They also note that “approximately 30 percent of our audience comes from outside the Asheville area.” MPP has remained vital as the neighborhood they are based in has undergone intense gentrification.
In recent years the MPP has brought more and more people into the neighborhood, though the actual name of the neighborhood, Stumptown, has long been erased. As far as I am aware, the Black historical significance of their location has never been mentioned by the MPP in any of their materials, on their website, or announced from stage.
Whatever the reasons for this omission, now is a new moment.
Community over commodity
My research of the history of the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre has partially been in response to the large-scale for-profit music concerts that Plugged-In Productions began to hold there in 2019 and with frequency last year.
The concerts brought in large crowds (around 1000 people per show) and tour buses that the infrastructure surrounding the amphitheater is not equipped to handle. They were launched without explicit consent from the neighborhood. Neighbors were not asked if we wanted to bring in well-known bands from out-of-town, or if so, what bands we’d like to hear (the 2021 series most featured white male musicians playing Americana). Tickets averaged $50+ each, cost prohibitive to many of us who live nearby.
Although I love live music, these factors made the concerts feel extremely extractive to me. I was particularly irked that Plugged-In branded the “Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre” name with a website and social media accounts; a privately owned business claiming a venue that is technically a public good.
My understanding from a message posted on the Montford listserv is that this arrangement was a way for MPP to recoup losses due to the pandemic. There was never an open call from the MPP for promoters to submit proposals to use the stage for commercial events, it was a behind the scenes agreement. MPP got some of the money from beer sales at these concerts, to the tune of around $26,000. In retrospect, perhaps less intrusive and more lucrative strategies could have been pursued.
Eventually, in response to complaints, the City confirmed that the zoning of the amphitheater (RS8) does not allow for for-profit events, nor do such events align with terms of the MPP lease*. The ending of commercial concerts at the amphitheater was not, as some narratives claim, due to the noise ordinance. Though some neighbors did have issues with the volume of the shows (while others had no opinion or enjoyed the music), at the end of the day, the problem was with using a community-based resource for financial gain.
As I learned more of the history of the site of the amphitheater, the fact that a white-male-owned production company was given the chance to make money off of a city-owned venue located on the site of a Black neighborhood which was displaced during urban renewal felt even more insulting and unjust.
It also made me reflect on lost opportunities to date.
What if, over the past 40+ years, this city resource had been leveraged for the community that has historical ties there?
It’s not as if there haven’t been Black artists and performers in the area around the amphitheater since it was built. The Hillcrest High Steppin’ Majorettes and Drum Corps, established by John R. Hayes in 1977, comes to mind. Musician Aaron Mills, who played with Cameo, grew up nearby. Charles Pickens (of the Untils and Pic and Bill) used to play house shows nearby at his family’s home on Cumberland Avenue. I always thought the amphitheater is an obvious place for gospel concerts. Yet, even with nearby churches who have had dynamic choirs over the years such as Welfare Baptist Church (where Aaron Mills played bass) and Hill Street Baptist Church, this has yet to happen.
Turning to the wider city, there were, are, and will be a plethora of Black performers and youth interested in performing (in addition to the Black actors that take part in MPP productions) who might benefit from supportive access to this city-subsidized venue. There have been a wealth of unmet possibilities for this performing arts resource to be utilized by Black-led groups.
Again, I respect and honor how the Montford Park Players have positively added to the cultural landscape of Asheville. At the same time, we have reached a new vantage point on this landscape, and have the chance to examine our path. As a white musician and writer, this kind of examination is my work to do as well.
By questioning the status quo we create the space for generative ideas.
Suggestions for inquiry
Is there community interest in the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre becoming a more accessible as a platform for Black talent outside of Shakespeare productions?
For it to host more diverse crowds and events?
For the space to better honor Stumptown history?
For the amphitheater and surrounding land to be held for the Reparations process?
How? When? What else?
We won’t know unless we ask.
Thank you to Oralene Simmons for visiting my home earlier this summer and sharing some of her many Montford and Stumptown stories with me. I look forward to sharing more of what I’ve learned about her outstanding work (which continues to this day).
* The Montford Park Players current lease of the amphitheater says they agree to steward it for “the following public purposes: (1) to provide educational opportunities for students to participate in the dramatic arts, (2) to provide opportunities for community directors, actors, technicians and volunteers to participate in theatre production and (3) to provide low or no cost public access to dramatic and cultural performances that contribute to the cultural vitality of the Western North Carolina region.”
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