Date of Submission
Film and Electronic Arts
Project Advisor 1
Sayeeda A. Moreno
I was raised by a storyteller. My mom never studied art or had a career in the arts, but she is the best storyteller I know. She is animated, passionate, and has a talent for remembering the smallest details from her past. Growing up, car rides would be filled with my mother’s stories about growing up in Hollygrove. They would range from fights she got into with other girls from school because they would make fun of her for her lighter complexion, calling her “honky whitey,” or times she was displined by the nuns at school because she would pop her gum when they turned around to write on the chalkboard. In my sophomore year, I took Character and Story, a screenwriting class, with Professor Sayeeda A. Moreno. The whole class was tasked with writing about the same protagonist all semester, so I chose to write about my mother when she was in high school, all the way until the shenanigans she gets into in her adult life. I found her to be the ideal protagonist because she has no inhibitions, which can be her most endearing quality, but also her hamartia. When it came time to choose a setting and story for a senior project, I was drawn to the 1980s in New Orleans and to a narrative surrounding a young woman character based on my mother. Hollygrove is known for crime, being the birthplace of Lil’ Wayne, and being a low income black neighborhood in New Orleans. However, growing up, I heard about the love, community, and life that filled the streets of Hollygrove. I choose to integrate the stories I heard growing up into a fictional plot for my senior thesis.
My mother has always excelled at writing, public speaking, and art, but her mother discouraged her from pursuing anything that “black folks don’t make money in.” Thus, the protagonist of my film, Veronica (which is my mom’s middle name, as she is an extrapolation of her, and not a recreation), wants to be a writer, and sets out to get her piece published in the Times Picayune. The prompt of the literary contest that Veronica enters in the film asks participants to describe the life of a person in New Orleans whose story is deserving of recognition. She ultimately chooses to write about the neighborhood’s corner store clerk, Native, as a means of distinguishing herself from her competitors who will likely write about someone who is established in their community and career. Nonetheless, she inadvertently judges him for his “lack of ambition.” Native serves as a foil to Veronica, someone who is reserved and content with the concept of simply working in order to support a family. Thus, a rift emerges between them, as Veronica struggles to reconcile their differing existential objectives. It is this deficiency of understanding that generates tension and discord between the two characters throughout the film. However, sharing family stories is what soothes their discomfort, and bonds them. Native’s father is a janitor at Walgreens and a laborer at a box factory, which are the same occupations had by my grandfather on my dad’s side. I also chose to write about my grandfather on my mother’s side, Lincoln Alexis, another artist in the family, but not in the conventional sense. He was a laborer. A man who was forced to drop out of pursuing an education because his father passed away. With his charisma, profound ability to articulate himself, and a drive to help others in his community (what my family calls “tap dancing”), he transitions from being an elevator operator to opening his own painting business. He painted the renowned mansions on St. Charles, an infamous street of old, white money––Property only accessible to people born of the lineage funded by slavery. When we passed those same mansions today, my mom always ranted that he never had the fancy equipment to match the paint, but did so by eye. He then passed his skills to black men who were battling addiction on the streets. Veronica delivers these stories with impassioned monologues, memories. This is the only way my grandfather’s legacy exists for me, as he passed away before I was born and my family could not afford to create home movies until recently. Most of the conversations had by Veronica and Native take place at the house my father grew up in. 2109 Cadiz Street is a small, yellow, shotgun double, that sheltered a family of 7. The couch is the same couch I sat on when I first heard these family stories. Veronica and Native’s initial conversation takes place on a porch, which is a very common place for socialization among black people in New Orleans. In fact, Native’s house in the film is owned by a man that my dad and his siblings grew up with. He and his friend perpetually sat on the porch and joyfully watched us film. While filming, the other neighbors kept exclaiming how much I resembled my grandmother. This is why I used found footage of New Orleans and superimposed images of my family from the 1980s. All of my family identity and history is passed down orally, so I had to animate a world that connects the relationships and stories I take pride in, through interviewing family members, scriptwriting, and the use of old family photos. While on set, my mom cooked the entire cast and crew homemade creole dishes.
Veronica hears the saxophone throughout the piece psychologically, as her father used to wake her up by playing the saxophone in his boxers every morning. This is a true story, often recounted to me by my mother when we hear the saxophone on the streets of New Orleans. The saxophone Native plays on, is the same saxophone my grandfather used. The relationship between Veronica and Lincoln, one not shown visually on camera, is instead exemplified by the recurring sound of the saxophone that Veronica continually evades (ie: putting on her walkman headphones or submerging herself in water). By the end, it is revealed in a few quick images that Veronica does reign victorious and her article is published in the Times Picayune. However, she writes about her father’s legacy, instead of submitting a piece about Native. I did not want to make Tap Dance a story only of romantic love, but about grief, and how it is those uncomfortable and clumsy connections we form that drive us along through our pain in pursuit of our passions. I wanted Veronica to pull herself forward and write about the person she continuously tries to run from, instead of the person she chose as a quick distraction. I filmed the final images at the site of my grandfather’s actual tomb, and my mom placed fresh roses by his grave prior to filming, a tangible symbol for honoring our family’s contributions and legacy.
I hoped to create a film that would depict another side to New Orleans. When we see historic mansions, I want us instead to think about the laborers' stories and how their legacy drives the identity of their children today, to remind us that when we hear the classic New Orleans jazz horn, that could be a sound of sorrow for some. Or when we think about people from a neighborhood like Hollygrove, to hear their stories. My mom and aunts always tell me that they never realized that they did not have much, and it was their community and family that shielded them from the abuses and injustices of their time. Making my thesis was one of the most emotionally challenging processes I have ever undergone, but it was my family who made the food, and who came to set, and who offered me their inputs on the script, always reminding me that to study art and to be able to synthesize and express your perception of the world is a great privilege. I am the first artist in my family in a conventional sense, but I come from a city and family of culture, pride, and oral storytelling.
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Villavasso, Christa Kathleen, "Tap Dance" (2021). Senior Projects Spring 2021. 313.
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