Thursday, July 24, 2008

Coming Soon: Shakespeare Of, By, and For the People--Again!

Second Line Parade: A Culture of Philanthropy

This Sunday, as part of our 8th annual Deer Isle Jazz Festival with its special, expanded focus on New Orleans, we are hosting a traditional "second line" parade through downtown Stonington, along our working waterfront.

New Orleans' "second lines"--the dancers and celebrants who followed the mourners and brass bands in traditional New Orleans' funeral parades--are themselves the creatures of an important and unique part of New Orleans' culture: the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs.

These neighborhood clubs are one of the engines that, pre-Katrina, gave New Orleans a uniquely African and community-based culture. As new development and regulations threaten their second line parades and other traditions, these organizations--and the unique jazz culture they support--are under siege.

The African tribal customs that landed in New Orleans as both a slave port and an important place where slaves could win their freedom (in what is today Congo Square) rested on the belief that a productive tribal member was a valued part of the tribe. In times of need or death, that member's family was taken care of. Because everything that tribal member did was for the care and benefit, not just of an individual family, but of the entire tribe. If a member killed an antelope, he or she would divide up the carcass so each tribal member could share. Members shared in the building of huts, or the digging of shallow rock shelters, rituals, and the defense of the tribe and more.

In New Orleans in the late 18th century, these social customs evolved among freed slaves into the first of the social aid and pleasure clubs, created to provide burial, funeral, and even crafts training services for the African-American community. The clubs are based on the principle originally taught in Africa: of coming together, especially in times of need, for the collective good.

Here in coastal New England, we have churches and secular organizations--the Rebekahs, the Odd Fellows, the Masons, etc.--who take on many of the same functions. When someone is lost in a fishing accident, or injured in a car accident, we host bean suppers and post collection jars at the cash registers of local businesses.

New Orleans' social aid and pleasure clubs, and the musicians of the brass bands at the heart of their second line parades, are now at the forefront of trying to sustain traditional New Orleans' culture post-Katrina. In many ways for coastal Mainers, too, it is time to dig deep into our cultural traditions for the strength needed to collectively sustain communities whose unique legacies are under seige by money and development.

On this Sunday, July 27, at noon we'll have a chance to join forces--the Lobster Crackers' Social Aid & Pleasure Club, lead by New Orleans' Own Hot 8 Brass Band--and parade down Main Street and out onto the commerical fish pier, experiencing the rich tradition, power and celebration of a second line parade.

Art, Entertainment, and Outrage

All during this bright and shiny summer of recession and war, careening toward presidential conventions, I've been wondering: where is the outrage?

Then I saw the new Pixar/Disney, G rated animated film WALL-E.

And there was the outrage, packaged into a little trash compacting robot on a planet ruined by overconsuming humans and displayed for the eyes of the world, and especially children, to see.

Well done, Andrew Stanton (WALL-E's animator)--even if on national radio you did for some reason believe you had to maintain a division between art and politics, and deny any deeper motivations for your story crafting.

It's about time our kids--and us along with them--understand it is perfectly OK, indeed the RIGHT THING, to feel uncomfortable with the world around us: to be disturbed and, yes, outraged. After all, we've got a president and government that have driven our economy into ruin via policies that support and promote overconsumption--whether of oil or of bonus checks. These decisions are so defiant in their blatant self-servingness that I'm still not sure why we aren't all marching on Washington, D.C., and burning something every day.

I guess it is because, well, we are all too comfortable. And our entertainment system is geared, for the most part, to keep us that way. So that when we have a choice, in a community theater company, to choose between producing "Carousel," with its dark story of male-female relations, and something that simply makes us happy--we'll choose the latter. I can't tell you the number of times people have tried to dissaude us from producing a piece of theater or booking a film because, "It just isn't HAPPY." Yep. Right.

But not WALL-E. We had one smart and sensitive seven year old in the audience dissolve into tears and run from the theater the night we opened it. The vision it paints of our future is indeed grim, and that's a picture we don't want to look at. Because to really sit with the discomfort this movie--which, as 20th century Holocaust philosopher Hannah Arendt perceptively wrote mid-century, is more culture than entertainment--creates means we need to get off our theater seats and really make some change.

And real change is possibly even more difficult, more time consuming, to create than, well, real culture.

Leaving us all very uncomfortable indeed.