By Lonnie Burstein HewittMargaret Noble, who has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from UC San Diego and an MFA in Sound Art from the Art Institute of Chicago, spent years mixing dance music in underground clubs before moving into the world of performance art.
Her latest adventure, coming to San Diego Museum of Art on Aug. 7, is “Righteous Exploits,” a multi-media piece she created with Justin Hudnall, executive director of the spoken word collective “So Say We All.” It’s a narrative duet written by Hudnall, with Noble providing the accompanying visuals and sounds. Part of SDMA’s Summer Salon series, the show can also be seen Sept. 19-22 at the White Box Theater in Liberty Station, where an earlier version appeared in April.
Noble said the adventure began with a book she was reading, “The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in 19th-Century America,” about a period when ordinary people were out in the streets telling and selling their hard-luck stories to the public.
When she was invited to be part of a Live Arts Festival at the White Box Theater, she said she thought about the wealth of material she had about her grandmother, a Dust Bowl-era activist, who fought for the rights of migrant farmworkers in the 1930s and ’40s, and was later targeted by the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy and the FBI. That seemed like a good nucleus for a performance, and she asked Hudnall to write the piece.
Noble and Hudnall had formed a solid connection in 2012, when both received Creative Catalyst grants from San Diego Foundation — Hudnall for “The Far East,” a multi-media anthology and performance based on stories collected from inhabitants of San Diego’s East County; Noble for “44th and Landis,” an installation examining her childhood neighborhood that was featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown. The two share a deep interest in personal narratives, though they have what Noble called “very different vibes.”
“Justin is very literal; I’m more experiential,” she said. “His world is words; mine is sound and images, the world of memories, dreams, and the subconscious. But we’re both fascinated by the power of true stories and the tradition of storytelling.”
In researching her grandmother’s life, Noble said she discovered a recurring pattern to her family stories: one generation of women after another devoting themselves to virtuous causes but often falling for ignoble men, failing in their attempts at freedom and making a mess of family life. What does it take, she wondered, for us to break the cycle? How much is our present influenced by the past?
Hudnell had his own set of family stories, about generations of men seduced by the adrenaline rush of war. He wanted to weave some of his tales into the piece, and so “Righteous Exploits” expanded its scope.
The final component was award-winning director Lisa Berger, whom Noble had worked with before. “Lisa has lots of experience in traditional theater but she’s also interested in new ways of telling stories,” Noble said. “She understands what we’re trying to do, and asks all the right questions. She really knows how to tune things up.”
The result is a mix of thought-provoking stories, hundreds of images, and a haunting soundscape, including a handmade music box that plays a little tune which recurs, again and again, like the “eternal recurrences” to be found in every family’s history.
If you go■ What: ‘Righteous Exploits’
■ When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 7
■ Where: San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park
■ Tickets: Free with museum admission
■ Also: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19; 8 p.m. Sept. 20 and 21; 6:30 p.m. Sept. 22
■ Where: White Box Theater, 2590 Truxton Road, Suite 205, NTC/Liberty Station
■ Tickets: $15