Q&A with Joseph Plaster on The Peabody Ballroom Experience, Part I

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Editors’ Note: Joseph Plaster, director of the Winston Tabb Special Collections Research Center at Johns Hopkins University, won the 2023 Outstanding Public History Project Award-Small Institution for the Peabody Ballroom Experience. As Plaster explains, “The Peabody Ballroom Experience is a public humanities collaboration between Johns Hopkins University and ballroom, a nearly century-old performance-based network and culture composed primarily of gay, lesbian, transgender, and gender non-conforming people of color.” You can learn about this project on the Humanities for All blog. We sat down with Joseph to dig deeper into some particularly intriguing aspects of his project. Part II of our conversation can be found here.

Editors: How are you involved in the Peabody Ballroom Experience?

I coordinate the Peabody Ballroom Experience in my capacity as Curator in Public Humanities and director of the Winston Tabb Special Collections Research Center at the Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries. As a white, queer person employed by an elite educational institution, I strive to make university resources available to ballroom artists not affiliated with the university; to mediate between the university and ballroom, two publics with radically different cultural norms and levels of access to institutional power; and to advocate for the value of knowledge produced through minoritized publics and practices, particularly performance. The Peabody Ballroom Experience cultivates an exchange of knowledge between Johns Hopkins and ballroom artists by creating opportunities for faculty, students, activists, and performers to come together as partners in education and creative expression.

Back of person in purple and blue costume with wings. Camera angled upward toward soaring ceiling of library.

A ballroom artist competes in the “Feline Fatale” Virgin Performance category. Photo credit: Saskia Kahn.

I launched the Peabody Ballroom Experience in the fall of 2018, in collaboration with ballroom leaders, after moving to Baltimore for a postdoctoral position. As Curator in Public Humanities for the Sheridan Libraries, I was tasked with conducting research in the university’s archives, libraries, and museums and interpreting my findings for and with broad public audiences. One of the university repositories—the opulent George Peabody Library, known as Baltimore’s “Cathedral of Books”—seemed to cry out for ballroom performance. The Library, like ballroom, is larger-than-life; five tiers of ornamental cast-iron balconies rise dramatically to a massive skylight sixty feet above the floor. The Library, like ballroom, is a repository of history and knowledge; housed behind classical columns are more than 300,000 rare books dating from the eighteenth century to the present. I began conceiving a project that would bring together the Library and the ballroom scene to celebrate Black queer aesthetics and history.

Editors: Can you tell us more about the different communities you brought together for this project? What roles did each community play? What is your or the project’s philosophy of community engagement?

My philosophy of community engagement is influenced by the most recent “public turn” in the academy, which is renewing interest in participatory action research, community-based learning, and collaborative approaches to knowledge creation. When I launched the project in 2018, Hopkins, like many elite educational institutions, tended to vacillate between viewing its Black neighbors as potential dangers to be policed and, at times, as the beneficiaries of charity. Faculty and staff often deployed the public humanities as a form of intellectual charity: they created knowledge in the academy and bestowed it on those outside the university walls who, they implied, did not have knowledge of their own. I took a different approach by cultivating an exchange of knowledge between Hopkins and the local ballroom scene, bringing together faculty, students, and Baltimore-based artists as partners in research and education.

I brought together and paid a core planning group made up of leaders from Baltimore’s ballroom scene and I continue to make all major project decisions in collaboration with this group. Most recently, the planning group consists of Legendary Rhonda Carr, Icon Enrique St. Laurent, Legendary Marco West, and Icon Sebastian Escada. I hired the Icon Marquis Revlon, a local vogue Icon, to lead workshops for students in the Peabody Dance department. They kick off our balls with gorgeous, choreographed performances. I worked with students and faculty in the JHU Film Department to co-produce documentary films starring local ballroom leaders. Finally, I enlisted curators from the Sheridan Libraries, who share rare books and special collections materials with ballroom artists who then write ball competition categories inspired by the materials. The success of our first Peabody ball, which took place in April 2019, has led to ongoing collaborations with students, staff, musicians, and artists from the ballroom scene.

The project has not radically altered the power imbalances between a wealthy, white-dominated university and a majority-Black city. Yet, it challenges a charity-based approach to public history by valuing diverse forms of knowledge, including knowledge produced through performance, that are institutionally relegated to a lower status than text. By insisting on the value of ballroom culture and history, the project forcefully asserts that queer and trans Black lives matter.

Editors: How do performers, guests, and collaborators make meaning of their time in the library?

The Peabody is a fully functioning library, operated by Johns Hopkins, but it is often reserved for donor events or weddings for wealthy white patrons. Moreover, it is located in a wealthy white neighborhood in one of the country’s most racially segregated cities. As such, many ballroom artists feel that they are making a political statement by staging a meaningful ritual—one created to insist on the value of queer people of color—in a historically white-dominated space.

Below are oral history testimonials I recorded with ballroom artists involved in the project:

Janol: “I got to learn about the Peabody. I learned that it is one of the premier libraries in Baltimore, and really one of the premier libraries in the country. I learned more about Johns Hopkins. I’m a history buff in general. So it all correlated to things that I’m naturally interested in. The fact that I was able to be in a space where all my identities were once not welcomed, it was kind of like . . . this is what it’s all about. This is what ballroom is about. Like this is what being a queer, black man is about. Showing up in spaces where we’re not always welcome or where we’re not the norm. The ball was like a symbol of our community becoming the norm.”

Londyn: “I love building on intersectionality of talent and creativity. And one of the exciting things about this Peabody Ballroom Experience is that it’s building on the dance program that’s here at the Peabody, it’s giving students a chance to learn voguing. And for voguers to learn a little bit about their classic ways. And there’s the film program that is learning about ballroom. So there is this mixture of the arts and creativity, and there’s a shared space . . . This is one of the things that really got me wanting to really participate, is that . . . intersectionality of talent and creativity.”

Monique: “When I walked in [the Peabody Library], I was like, ‘This is gonna go down in history.’ What I like about it so much is that it’s gonna be documented. So years down the line you’ll be able to tell people, ‘If you want to learn about ballroom, you can go the Peabody Library and find out about it,’ and it’ll be here. . . . It makes [ballroom history] just as important as everything else that’s in the library because it’s here. For the Library to even want to document this is a big deal. They wouldn’t want it here if it wasn’t of some type of importance. I think that’s a really, really big deal.”

Enrique: “What I like about the ball is, in the categories where it’s [based] off books, people have to do research [to prepare their costumes and performances]. So, when you’re researching, you’re reading the book . . . When you’re reading, you’re learning—but by accident, so to speak. . . . What makes [the project] phenomenal is because you guys are giving us a chance to display our talent in a wonderful place and we’re giving you guys a chance to see our talent . . . It gives you guys a understanding of us, it gives us an understanding of you guys, and we can grow together.”

James: “The Peabody is a library, a source of information, a source of history. Ballroom is a place of history. There’s history in ballroom. There’s knowledge in ballroom. So why not combine the two? Ballroom likes everything elegant [and] the Peabody is an elegant establishment. So to combine the two was a great idea and it was a successful idea, because it emulated what ballroom is.”

Editors: Please check out Part II which will be published soon!

~Joseph Plaster is a lecturer in the Museums and Society program, Curator in Public Humanities, and director of the Winston Tabb Special Collections Research Center at Johns Hopkins University. His book Kids on the Street: Queer Kinship and Religion in San Francisco’s Tenderloin (Duke University Press, 2023) explores the informal support networks that enabled abandoned and runaway queer youth to survive in central city tenderloin districts across the United States, and San Francisco’s Tenderloin in particular, over the past century. To learn more, visit Plaster’s personal website.

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