Through art, we can celebrate our collective lives or grapple with issues that thwart our ability to live our best lives.
JOSEPH HALL’S INTERVIEW
Tell us about yourself.
I’m Joseph Hall, he/him pronouns. I’m a Black biracial transracial adoptee. A cis queer person. I’m a cultural worker and leader. A performer. An artist. Soon to be 40-year-old—and looking forward to it! Raised in Maryland and Upstate New York, in a predominantly white small community, I found art to be an outlet for self-expression and identity building. After studying sculpture and ceramics in college my journey led me to Pittsburgh, PA with a return to the performing arts, my first love. My career has been devoted to BIPOC-led arts organizations, in Pittsburgh and New York City, that serve vibrant queer communities and communities of color. Currently, I lead an organization at the intersection of art, community, and social justice.
Art is everything. It is an amalgamation of disciplines researched, studied, and shaped by an artist and their collaborators into a sensory, cerebral experience. Artists create a moment, a portal for all of us to step back and look critically at our society and ask, “Why? “How did we get here? Where do we go from here?” Through art, we can celebrate our collective lives or grapple with issues that thwart our ability to live our best lives. I strongly believe culture is the soul of a community, and art is the expression of and caring for that soul. That is why I choose art.
I see that you are the executive director of Kelly Strayhorn Theater. What inspired you to take up this role?
I immediately think of two inspirations that changed my life—my previous experience at Kelly Strayhorn Theater and the pleasure of serving as Deputy Director at BAAD, The Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance.
My time at Kelly Strayhorn Theater from 2009 to 2014 was at a pivotal moment in the organization’s history. KST, as we’re known colloquially, shifted its business model from exclusively a theater rental venue to a presenting arts organization. Sharing contemporary performances and events that interrogated questions around socioeconomics and identity. We were a team of three full-time staff members working toward a vision of arts in the community, led by then-executive director janera solomon.
We were building a future centered on the power of Blackness.
KST was in a historically divested neighborhood, but we saw great value in ourselves and our fellow residents. We were building a future centered on the power of Blackness. By the time I transitioned to New York City, the organization had fifteen staff members, and two facilities, and was an integral component of the identity of our neighborhood. I came back to Pittsburgh, and back to KST to carry on the legacy of an organization that I love with a community that I love.
While in New York, the most empowering QTPOC space I entered found me through a web of connections. After Pittsburgh, I landed in Brooklyn. I made my way to the Bronx to work alongside Arthur Avilés and Charles Rice-Gonzalez, two queer men of color and co-founders of BAAD, one of the oldest queer theaters in the US centering women, people of color, and LGTBQIA+ folks. There I was part of a loving community of the most brilliant, beautiful queer artists and thinkers. For nearly 25 years, Arthur and Charles held space for community—like a heavily guarded fortress protecting us at all costs, and an impermeable cloud lifting us to the homosphere where we shined as we saw, and were seen by, each other. When the opportunity at KST arose, I knew this was my chance to bring part of BAAD! to Pittsburgh.
What projects are you currently working on?
Right now, my focus is preserving the future of Kelly Strayhorn Theater as a home for creative experimentation, community dialogue, and collective action rooted in the liberation of Black and queer people. Our century-old home is situated in East Liberty, a neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh that has lost 1,300 Black residents just in the last decade. It was once the largest non-center-city business district in the country, always with a diverse population, with various art offerings and numerous formal and informal cultural spaces. But like so many cities, its Black residents and culture were under constant threat—surviving 1930’s redlining, failed urban renewal of the 1960s, and displacement of the 2000s.
I believe BIPOC-led cultural organizations must own our spaces in order to control our futures so we may thrive right where we live.
Today, KST is one of the few remaining public cultural institutions in the neighborhood where there were once nine theaters. We’re now battling with our own potential displacement at the end of our lease in a few years, but we remain committed to creating a future through art—rooted in the liberation of Black and queer people. As with Black homes, I believe BIPOC-led cultural organizations must own our spaces in order to control our futures so we may thrive right where we live. That’s what I am working toward for KST—owning our future and thriving where we live!
How do you recharge your batteries, or what fuels you up?
You’re looking at a preacher’s kid who gathered every Sunday with fellow church members for the first twenty-one years of his life. The church was a shared experience of singing and shouting, laying down burdens, and receiving a word to get you through the next week, hopefully. The ritual of the gathering was ingrained in me. These days, you won’t typically catch me in the pews, rather I love to gather with folks for a shared, transformative art experience. I might be in a theater, on the dance floor, or in the great outdoors. Whatever the site, the exchange of energies fuels me.
What is the one quote that keeps you going?
“I think everything should happen at halfway to dawn. That’s when all the heads of government should meet. I think everybody would fall in love.”Billy strayhorn