While theatre is on pause, Marla Louissaint has claimed space and launched a collective.
As social media became the go-to for connection and conversation in 2020, Louissaint, who won the 2015 Jimmy Awards and was seen in the 2016 New York City Center production of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, saw it as a tool. Between organizing for Black Lives Matter protests and pushes for racial equity across industries, social media was flooded with resources, book recommendations, and calls-to-action.
Louissaint realized there was a need for an intersectional resource hub to sort through the oversaturation of content. That idea catalyzed into Claim Our Space Now, the nonprofit that Louissaint founded with Dimitri Joseph Moïse, who she met on the Beautiful: The Carole King Musical tour. Their mission is to inform and inspire people to take action in dismantling white supremacy and save Black lives, covering causes including environmental racism, queer safe spaces, and reproductive health, to name a few.
Louissaint’s work landed her in The Creative Collective NYC’s 2021 Creative Class, which applauded her as one of the “culture-shifters across a variety of disciplines, from tech, social justice, fashion and beyond, who inspire us to be our most unapologetic selves.”
Get to know Louissaint in the Q&A below.
What project(s) are you working on currently?
Claim Our Space Now (COSN) is my nonprofit, main project, and lifelong journey that I embarked on beginning in May of 2020 as I navigated new territory as an organizer creating a safe space for all to make activism a part of their daily lives for the movement for Black lives to persist. Did I know that leading a nonprofit was in the cards for me in the pandemic and revolution while finishing my Computer Science degree at Fordham last year? Absolutely not. But with more reflection that dates as far back as to when I performed in and won the Jimmy Awards for Caroline, or Change directed by Jo Ann Marie Cimato at The Beacon School in 2015, I have begun to embrace that founding and presiding over COSN is my destiny.
In April of last year, I found myself screaming into the void of social media where my mental health/reaction to Black genocide can be easily tracked in my archive of IG stories (similar to how Caroline internalized a lot of anger and frustration about the fight for Black lives throughout the show). I knew that tossing up hashtags in support of BLM wasn’t active in the fight and that in place of fighting for individual cases of Black lynchings, we need to attack the virus by the name of “white supremacy” that perpetuates our genocide in police brutality, environmental racism, medical racism, housing discrimination and—well, you get the gist. When George Floyd was murdered, I put my words to action by marinating on an actionable vision of an intersectional anti-racist movement bolstered by accessibility to our multimedia resource. The resource we are building is one that will keep our immigrant, disabled, deaf, LGBTQ+ communities and so many other intersections educated and motivated in this fight to dismantle white supremacy and defend Black people’s birthright to claim space and live unapologetically and inspire us to stay unionized and mobilized in our demands for change. Three days after making that original call on my socials, an activist nonprofit Claim Our Space Now was born with my network of artists in musical theatre and fashion.
My partner who helped me execute my vision is my fellow queer Haitian revolutionary brother and artist Dimitri Joseph Moïse who I met on the Beautiful tour in 2017, and before quarantine closed us up, we were going to be in The Visitor at the Public Theater together. This project turned life-long journey has shown me the power of community and what can happen when society supports, protects, and defends Black women and our ideas to radically change the world for ourselves and future generations. If you’d like to know more about the whirlwind of work we’ve done in the community in our eight months, visit us at our website and follow along on our Twitter and Instagram!
Don’t be a stranger because Claim Our Space Now is designed to be a space where everyone can get involved to see the systemic change we seek for Black lives.
Where are you finding inspiration?
I am deeply passionate about Black art, excellence, and abundance across all disciplines. My intentionally curated Black world on socials began when I came back from the Beautiful tour to finish my Computer Science degree in 2019, and I jumped into modeling on the recommendation from my supremely talented sister from tour Alia Hodge. After doing research on the industry and submitting, I got to walk in three Black designers’ shows in New York Fashion Week that fall. Since then, I started working with photographers, creative directors, all kinds of creatives that I am endlessly inspired by whose commitment to telling stories in fashion helped me find my purpose to create and celebrate unapologetic Black stories with them.
I find inspiration within my network of friends and change makers which expanded fourty-fold when I was named to the Creative Collective’s Creative Class of 2021 in Variety on the first day of Black History Month. The occasional recognition for my modeling and creative direction work also inspires me to push further in my craft of storytelling in fashion/visual art in a way I wasn’t able to at the mercy of casting in musical theatre or TV and film. The Black renaissance is alive and well and we’re finding ways to tell our stories without the spirit of competition due to the gatekeeping that once was.
How has your artistic credo evolved in the past year?
It has changed drastically and aligns with my purpose. Shortly after news of Breonna Taylor’s lynching was made public I came across a quote that changed my life and helped me confirm my purpose with my art: “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible,” from Toni Cade Bambara. This purpose has allowed me to find the blend between my activism and art. I fully embrace the title artivist because that is what I have set forth to do, even before founding Claim Our Space Now, by sharing my process and art with my network about Black female sexuality and the liberation of our bodies in all forms. I will be making art that is loud and proud and will ensure that the revolution persists. That is something I wouldn’t have found in the white dominated space of Broadway, so I’m looking forward to seeing how I’ll be sticking to that purpose when the industry comes back.
What perspective do you bring to the artistic landscape?
I bring my story of a pansexual, formerly undocumented immigrant from Haiti and a conservative household who is on the path to fully liberate herself and her community from the throes of capitalism, white supremacist delusion, and the patriarchy by living boldly and unapologetically through my art.
How do you navigate working in a field where you are constantly subject to critique?
I’ve actually never been one to pay attention to critique from a third party like magazines or theatre critics when I’ve been in shows like Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater at City Center or cabarets throughout my musical theatre career. That’s mostly because all the projects I’ve aligned myself in the past and to this day will continue to be ones that I wholeheartedly stand by.
If the critiques are coming from a director on the project, family, or my network, I fully embrace them because it is part of my process to refine my craft and continue to grow!
How do you cultivate joy in your life when you’re not creating?
I must say that there isn’t ever a time I’m not creating. My imagination is always running wild for my art, change in the world, or what I’m going to eat for a snack even. I create time to dance in the middle of a work day at my computer as President of COSN, create programming ideas to radically make change in the community, I create and foster relationships with people across different disciplines in art, activism, all walks of life. I create even when I’m sleeping when I have a lot of my ideas for shoots or content to effectively tell my story to inspire others with my non-linear journey from engineering physics major to musical theatre performer to fashion model and now founder of a transformative nonprofit. I try to find and bring joy into everything I do, and I think it definitely shows most in the projects where I have creative license and autonomy over the narrative.
What do you want to bring to theatre when it returns?
An unfiltered voice for the changes that need to be implemented if the industry hopes to come back with great success. The first time I saw myself in a show was in Danai Gurira and Liesl Tommy’s Eclipsed, all-female team telling a nuanced all-Black women story. I want to see more Jocelyn Bioh’s. I want Black casting directors, producers, all leadership has to shift radically in order to support the BIPOC performers that carry the industry on our backs. I don’t ever want to see “cattle-calls” for that one Black part in a show. I don't want to have to draw up another petition with the help of my network including Jimmy alums, Broadway talent, and theatre staff calling on Nederlander and all producers to be transparent about their fiscal support of a certain past president who was the enemy of so many without millions of dollars in their pocket.
I will bring my voice in activism as boldly as I would my belt during an 11 o’clock number—and I know I'm one of MANY. I hope the Broadway League, Actors Equity, and all gatekeepers in the industry are ready! By the time Broadway opens, they will have been "listening and learning" for a year, and I along with thousands of actors in the business fully stand by Broadway For Racial Justice and We See You White American Theater's demands for change. We can't wait to see what they've learned to implement in order for the industry to be a just and equitable space for all.