PROVIDENCE — Some activists tear down memorials to white supremacy. The Haus of Glitter Dance Company moved into one.
The company’s five co-directors — Assitan Coulibaly, Anthony Andrade, Steven Choummalaithong, Trent Lee, and Matt Garza — have been living in the Esek Hopkins House since January of last year. The city of Providence has owned the house for more than a century. Haus of Glitter’s stay is part of the city’s Park-ist in Residence program.
Hopkins was the commander in chief of the Continental Navy during the American Revolution. He also oversaw the catastrophic voyage of a slave ship.
“Our task moving in was to grapple with the space’s layered history,” said Garza, “and because it’s been such an underutilized space, to revitalize it as an asset for the community.”
The house was in poor shape when the BIPOC, queer-affirming group arrived. Decades ago, the city conducted historic house tours here. Since then, it has largely fallen into disuse.
“I swept Esek Hopkins’s dead skin cells into a dustpan,” Garza joked.
Their residency culminates this month with outdoor performances of their original dance opera, “The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins.”
Until this century, Hopkins had, in many ways, been framed as a local hero. A Providence middle school bears his name. A statue honoring him, erected in 1891, stands at the intersection of Branch Avenue and Charles Street.
Yet the Continental Congress dismissed him from his navy post for disobeying orders. Even worse, in the mid-1760s, Hopkins commanded the slave ship Sally, commissioned by the Brown brothers. Research into the Sally’s voyage was central to Brown University’s 2006 Slavery and Justice Report, which assessed the school’s dependence on the slave trade.
Of the 196 West Africans the Sally took on board, 109 perished before the journey ended. Hopkins and his crew quashed a rebellion, murdering eight captives and wounding others. Of the others, “Some Drowned themselves Some Starved and others Sickened & Dyed,” Hopkins wrote in his log, which Brown has posted online.
“Those who jumped off ship were maybe trying to get back to the coast, or to just turn to the water,” said Andrade, “that was their way of finding freedom after months of being captive.”
“The Historical Fantasy of Esek Hopkins” wonders what life would be like had slavery never happened, taking the story of one Sally captive and imagining its full breadth and legacy. The Haus of Glitter folks see her as a hero.
The dance opera looks squarely at the trauma Hopkins, and the system he worked for, inflicted on enslaved people. In the end, it’s also a celebration of resilience and mythic imagination.
“It’s a story of mermaids, history, lineage, and resistance,” said Garza. “It travels around the world. It’s a dance party.”
They frame the performance as a healing community ritual.
“We want all the young people in the city to see a story about a figure they know by name,” said Garza. “We want it to be empowering for Black and brown children to see, for queer children to see, for young women to see.”
Haus of Glitter members have also planted a community garden, held yoga and meditation classes, and conducted cleansing rituals at the house. They have instituted “restidencies,” inviting other Black and brown artists to come rest. Resting is part of the ethic they have instituted living in the house.
“We lead with the intention that we are going to take care of ourselves and we’re going to take care of each other,” said Coulibaly. “And that, at its core, is not a practice we inherited as BIPOC individuals.”
Caring for themselves and each other extends to caring for their community. The artists have accomplished a lot during their residency, according to Micah Salkind, special projects manager for the city’s department of Art, Culture + Tourism.
“The amount of work the collective has done is unparalleled in terms of the depth and density of public programs and the thinking they’ve put into the legacy of this complicated figure,” Salkind said.
The group hopes to address the placement of the Hopkins statue and work to erase his name from the middle school — a move the Providence school board has voted for, but that has not yet occurred.
“The institutional work of changing a memorial really does hit the deep inner workings of how systems are designed,” Garza said. “Historic preservation is an industry that profits from the maintenance of symbols of white supremacy.”
The Haus of Glitter artists aren’t erasing Esek Hopkins’s story. They’re expanding it.
“We like to say we’re the new, most historic thing to happen in this house. And none of us have murdered anyone,” said Garza. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re outshining Esek Hopkins’s legacy with flying colors.”
THE HISTORICAL FANTASY OF ESEK HOPKINS
Presented by The Haus of Glitter Dance Company at Esek Hopkins House, 97 Admiral St., Providence, Sept. 9-17. Tickets from $15. www.hausofglitter.org
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.