Regeneration: The Haus of Glitter’s Intervention to Transform the Esek Hopkins House
This story was written in collaboration with The Haus of Glitter.
For Kelsey Mullen, the director of education at the Providence Preservation Society, the Esek Hopkins House has had two major chapters in its life. The first was when it housed Hopkins, a censured naval commander who also commanded the ship Sally on its horrific voyage in 1764—where 109 of 196 enslaved people aboard died, “some in a failed insurrection, others by suicide, starvation, and disease.” The second chapter began three years ago when it was occupied, reinterpreted, and transformed by an innovative dance company and creative artist family called The Haus of Glitter.
In December 2019, The Haus of Glitter Dance Company—Assitan Coulibaly, Steven Choummalaithong, Anthony Andrade Jr., Trent Lee, and Matt Garza—moved their creative studio into the house as part of an artist residency to activate vacant city-owned historic spaces in public parks across Providence. Even before moving in, the five co-directors began to ask themselves questions about their interaction with the space. As Garza, one of the co-directors for The Haus, asked, how does “our diverse multicultural family move with intention in this house that is a symbol of colonization and slavery?”
The group had just begun its work when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Almost immediately their plans to invite people into the house ground to a halt, but then they looked out their windows and realized they had an entire park at their disposal. For the next three years, this group of dynamic, imaginative performers found a way to not only bring healing into a space representing injustice, but also to galvanize citizens to advocate for commemoration in a new way.
For Mullen, the work with The Haus is an example of how innovative partnerships are “pushing the preservation conversation in Providence forward, by bringing new tools to bear.”
Building a Foundation for Care-Centered Practice
The Haus of Glitter is a collective that came together in a shared love of dance as embodied history, justice work, and mental health practice. They soon realized the importance of their creative process as an “expression of care,” not just with each other, but with their community.
Haus co-director Trent Lee described how “the first time we walked in, it felt physically heavy. The space was not designed for any of us to thrive, and we found ourselves reckoning with the reality that this was our new home.” It was a difficult adjustment, but The Haus credits the partnership between the city, where they worked with Wendy Nilsson’s, the superintendent of the city's Department of Parks, the city’s Department of Art, Culture + Tourism, the Providence Preservation Society, as well as incredible artists and culture-bearers, to move forward together.
In their backyard, The Haus offered a number of outdoor programs, such as yoga and wellness day retreats, artist RESTidencies, West African dance classes, heritage dance parties, and community art builds. As Haus co-director Assitan Coulibaly said, “This house was not built to take care of our community; of Black and Indigenous families. So, our daily lives and our community programs became a protest where everything that we did was a demonstration and redirection of resources. It was so meaningful to watch our community walk into this space and for us to breathe together as an act of resistance. We watched people weep, release, smile, laugh, and hold each other tenderly as we all stepped into this awareness together.”
The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins
As part of their research, The Haus studied Sally’s log book and other records in the John Carter Brown archive. While they had been living with this history, it was, as co-director Anthony said, “so unbelievably intense and informative to physically be in the room with a book that had handwritten receipts of purchases of human beings who looked like me—who could be my ancestors.”
Included in this book was the record of a woman who hung herself on the ship’s first voyage. Haus co-director Steven Choummalaithong shared, “We just felt her. There’s no way to describe it, other than we felt her. We started to dream about her, feel her presence in the walls and in the trees. We started to feel this responsibility to honor her and bring justice to her story. She's a real person who existed, along with the others on that ship.” They realized that they were living in a monument to the fantasy of Esek Hopkins as a hero. It was not the whole truth, and they needed to bring justice and repair to this story before they moved out of the park.
The result—performed in September 2021—was an activist dance opera that allowed The Haus to “honor the people not represented in the plaque on the house, to do justice to our experience living in the park, and to do right by our community and everything we stand for.” This two-hour site-specific, multidisciplinary performance was part dance theater, fashion show, music composition, immersive installation, social practice, community ritual, and educational curriculum. In two acts, The Haus of Glitter shares the story of the woman who lost her life aboard the Sally, while also providing more intimate cultural context for how they are all connected to the stories of slavery and colonization in the United States. The fantastical second act, which takes place at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean is about moving forward, together.
The Haus of Glitter knew that they didn’t want this space to remain a home for a single family. The co-directors believe that, “It needs to become a space for our community to heal and transform,” so they began working with Providence Preservation Society to imagine the next phase of activity for the publicly-owned building—a vision centered around truth, justice, equity, wellness, community activation, and restoration. This spring, PPS is working with The Haus, the Department of Parks, and other partners to develop a workforce development program that uses the building as a classroom for training Rhode Islanders in the preservation trades, while addressing physical condition of the site for an as-yet determined future use. The co-directors of The Haus asked, “What if it became an industry standard to reflect and honor the hands that built the home before even grabbing a tool from the toolbox?”
As rising stars in the world of performance, dance, and justice-centered creative practice, The Haus of Glitter is developing national and international touring plans in hopes to strengthen the ongoing movement to preserve and represent underrepresented histories with creative community at the heart of the process. They are in process with the city’s Special Committee for Commemorative Works to rededicate not only the house and park, but also a statue and public school that commemorate Esek Hopkins.
As Mullen stated, “The Haus of Glitter has offered important ideas about what to do with this empty and violent house that sits on a public park. The property is all the more significant because of the meaning that The Haus of Glitter has brought to it, including the ways that they have engaged preservationists and the wider Providence community by asking questions about what we preserve and why.”
In November 2022 when the residency ended, The Haus of Glitter moved out of the Esek Hopkins House, but they remain committed to advocating for the future of this site and the park. As the work to re-dedicate the sites is underway, The Haus of Glitter recently announced a victory: the installation of a temporary sign in the park to serve as a placeholder and a promise to the community. In describing their preservation work, The Haus writes, “Our mission is to preserve underrepresented lineages of dance, music, culture, and other histories….We don’t just want to exist, we want to live. Change isn’t about forgetting. It’s about remembering.”
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