Rebecca Mwase (left) and Kathy Randels (right) in the ArtSpot production Go Ye Therefore (2010).

Raging with Love: An Interview with Theater Artist and Activist Kathy Randels

Kathy Randels has been generating performance art at the intersection of gender rebellion and community activism since her graduation from Northwestern in 1991.

It was in college that the daughter of an Oklahoma-farmer-turned-New-Orleans-preacher unleashed a subterranean fire in her belly; Randels launched into a journey inside her soul to unpack rage as a Southerner, a Baptist, and as a woman.

A sense of spirit-guided indignation has led Randels to create and perform avant-garde, site-specific theater in the streets of New Orleans, her flooded-and-gutted childhood home, the levees of St. Bernard Parish (an industrial suburb being gulped up by the Gulf’s rising tides), and in the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in the hamlet of St. Gabriel (The LCIW Drama Club for inmates, The Graduates for those released).

For roughly 20 years now, Randels has led ArtSpot Productions, an interdisciplinary performance ensemble in New Orleans. Now, in 2019, the Obie-winner is taking a moment to pause, reflect, and shift—a battle-fatigued adjustment motivated by her father’s springtime passing. At the funeral for Reverend Randels, his youngest daughter led a performative eulogy—a hybridization of hymns, poetry, homiletics, performance, and heritage underscored by the Zion Harmonizers. The ceremony was a testament that for Randels, performance is an act of life and death.

At the funeral for Reverend Randels, his youngest daughter led a performative eulogy—a hybridization of hymns, poetry, homiletics, performance, and heritage underscored by the Zion Harmonizers. The ceremony was a testament that for Randels, performance is an act of life and death.

We spoke twice on a weekend last January. Once, over the phone, right before Randels attended the funeral ceremonies of Father Jerome LeDeaux, the iconic activist pastor of the historically black St. Augustine Catholic Church in New Orleans. The second, sitting on the carpeted steps of a chapel altar—on the progressive campus of St. Charles Avenue Baptist, where the Reverend Randels was laid to rest.

Kathy Randels. Photo courtesy of ArtSpot Productions.

Ates: Do you feel called to New Orleans?

Randels: I refer to New Orleans as my mother—my place-mother. At the age of 18 when I went away to college, I wanted to leave this mother as much as I wanted to leave my own mother. There’s another world out there; I needed to see it. I encourage people who love this place to leave it. I think it’s important to bring what you learn from other places back to this place.

I refer to New Orleans as my mother—my place-mother. At the age of 18 when I went away to college, I wanted to leave this mother as much as I wanted to leave my own mother. There’s another world out there; I needed to see it. I encourage people who love this place to leave it. I think it’s important to bring what you learn from other places back to this place.

The more you give to a place, the more you love it. And the more it loves you.

I have to be in New Orleans, and I have to make work about New Orleans. This is the only place that I understand enough to have something to say about and also that maybe actually needs or wants me to say something about it.

Ates: John O’Neal (legendary co-founder of the Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions) taught you to “tell the deepest story” through the story circle process. What about New Orleans is regenerative for you when it comes to finding the deep stories?

Randels: I’m drawn to wounds, and I think of my work as participating in healing at some level—or trying to facilitate healing. New Orleans has so many wounds; So many things that have gone unexamined or unresolved here. Probably the deepest for me is slavery and racism—and how that has played out, reformed, and repeated itself with the prison system.

Ates: What role have elders played in your life, in your work?

Randels: Huge—I feel like that’s mostly where I learned both book smarts, theater smarts, and life smarts from.

I think the main value of elders is that they’ve been through stuff that you are going through. So they’re someone to talk to who can counsel you through a challenging situation—or advise based on their own experience.

Youngers have the freedom to envision healthier ways to move us forward without the baggage of unquestioned or even harmful habits that have become traditions (especially white male patriarchal practices in the United States). Youngers always lead the revolutions! Perhaps 21st-century revolution-and-evolution can happen without bloodshed if youngers and elders can listen to (and learn from) one another.

I do feel that the work that I do is holy. I feel that my life is holy. I feel that I—and everyone else here—are sacred beings. And I feel that we live in a country that has been contaminating that sacredness since its birth because our country is a lie. And we have never owned up to that lie.

Ates: When I think about your attachment to wounded spaces, and you mention how the legacy of slavery sticks with you on top of your exploration of female anger in Rage Within/Without, that all seems to coalesce with your work with in-and-out of prison with The LCIW Drama Club and The Graduates.

Randels: Talk about my elders and who I’ve learned from! I can’t measure how much I have learned from those ladies and the patience that they have had with me to love me and school me—but it’s the exchange. We all have the divine within us and we actually magnify it when we find it and bring it out in each other.

Ates: One of your influencers is Jerzy Grotowski, who had a notion of “the holy actor.” I’m curious, do you see yourself as an actor and do you see actors as holy and essential? Or is acting and performing part of something bigger?

Randels: Yes, I do see myself as an actor, but I think that’s the way I entered this tradition. When I was 12 years old, I knew I wanted to be an actor, and I held onto that want for a long time. But I have since become a writer, a director, a singer, a composer, a producer, an artistic director, and a citizen of New Orleans—I’ve always been that.

I think I’m going through a shift, Alex. It’s very interesting. It’s a very exciting time. And it might have something to do with my father’s passage.

I feel like my ego feels a little smaller and my spirit feels a little wider—which is interesting. It is still new. But I’m trying to ride it and receive it and figure out what it means.

I’m shifting into more of a place of trying to respond to the things that come to me. And they come in different realms. So one thing could be teaching, one thing could be helping take care of an elder, one could be performing, one could be writing when something happens in the world which really pisses me off actually taking the time to write about it and figure out why it’s making me so angry and what is the hurt that is at the base of the anger? What’s the wound? Or the fear?

I do feel that the work that I do is holy. I feel that my life is holy. I feel that I—and everyone else here—are sacred beings. And I feel that we live in a country that has been contaminating that sacredness since its birth because our country is a lie. And we have never owned up to that lie. The sons and daughters of the colonizers rebelled against the colony but didn’t leave any space for the original inhabitants of this land in any of it. And even worse, brought enslaved people from another continent and we somehow, in our cosmology, made that okay. And not just okay, but sanctioned by God. So no wonder we’re fucked.

So I gotta figure out how to stay alive in the capitalist system without harming myself and the people I love.

Ates: What are the visions for your next canon of work?

Randels: You know, Alex, I think part of what I’m supposed to do is just be present and not try to plan too much ahead. I spent the first 20 years planning ahead and feeling like the wave was always about to crash down on my head.

I think I spent the past ten years especially (the post-Katrina era) just mad as hell about (or at) what happened here and how it just continued to happen in every arena; Making work through that anger and maybe even making work because of that anger—and harming myself and others in the process because there was too much anger that was really on top of pain.

So I gotta figure out how to stay alive in the capitalist system without harming myself and the people I love.

(Through laughter)

Ates: That’s all?
Randels: Just that.

  • About

    Alex Ates was born and raised in New Orleans. Now, he invests time in Alabama—earning an MFA by teaching classes and directing plays at The University of Alabama. His writing appears in Backstage, American Theatre, Howlround, and Incite/Insight. Recipient of the SETC Graduate Young Scholar Award. Alex's work explores how theater in the American South testifies to the nation. iAmAlexAtes.com.