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Desi P. Shelton wields arts as a hammer,
building community in New Jersey’s poorest city
CAMDEN, NJ (Feb. 3, 2021) — Desi P. Shelton is a woman on a mission, working to build community “using the arts as the hammer” in Camden. Camden continues to make significant gains since 2012, when it was named by the U.S. Census Bureau as the poorest and most dangerous city in the country, but remains the poorest city in the state of New Jersey, with 35.5% of its population living below the poverty line.
As founding artistic director of Camden Repertory Theater and an urban woman of color, Shelton strives to amplify the voices of the unheard. Now, her newest play, Child Support, is in development as she eyes a post-Covid, August opening as part of Child Support Awareness Month.
With Child Support, audiences will find themselves immersed in the world of single, Black “baby mama” Ajani and her 17-year-old daughter, Muff, sitting right inside their living room, because the theater itself is built in a converted typical Camden row house.
“It’s what I call installation theater,” explains Shelton, who founded Camden Rep in 2006. “We are part of the Black Theater Matters movement. This is ‘tiny’ theater, in which we utilize and are grateful for whatever resources we have.”
The story of Ajani and Muff, and how they grapple with the emotional and financial repercussions of living with a deadbeat dad, is a full-length, stand alone sequel to Shelton’s earlier play, I Killed My Baby’s Daddy. That solo piece, which detailed Ajani’s efforts to “kill” her feelings for her baby’s father and move on, was a breakout success for the company.
In an essay for global theater platform Howlround, Shelton wrote, “Camden city buzzed because now they saw their stories on stage. Cause if Camden Rep doesn’t give the voice of the girls from the hood a vehicle to transform life into art, a stage to emote, a place to put broken glass into an ornate kaleidoscope, then who will?”
Child Support was given a recent reading by Camden’s Community Planning & Advocacy Council, an independent non-profit organization that works with over 300 social service and health agencies, as well as numerous public and private organizations, to advocate and coordinate Camden County’s human services programs; to protect and improve the quality of life for vulnerable people; and to promote social, racial and economic justice.
The creative team includes set designer Lily Guerin, costume designer Rebecca Kanach and composer Jamal P. Dickerson.
Shelton received her B.A. from Northeastern University and her M.F.A. in theater from Sarah Lawrence College. Upon returning to Camden, she heard her friends and neighbors complain that they were not welcome at local university venues, that they had no artistic outlet in Camden, and that their stories were being left untold — leading Desi to found Camden Rep, attracting first time theatergoers in the African American community and increasing audience attendance by 200%. In addition to producing plays, the company uses theater to improve life and literature skills of at-risk children through its P.A.C.E. (Preparing Artists for College Entrance) program, which helps students prepare for college auditions; assists with the application and financial aid process; offers supplementary education in written language, cultural, financial, emotional and social literacy; and creates jobs and apprentice training for returning college students.
Shelton has received the Valentine Foundation Award for female executives and is a Dodge Emerging Leader. She completed the Woman and Power Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and is a recipient of a Leeway Transformation Award for social change artists.
Camden Repertory Theatre is supported, in part, by the William Penn Foundation and the Geraldine Dodge Foundation.
For more information, go to www.camdenrep.com.