Sunday, April 27, 2008

I love Alabama like no other place I've been before and I've been plenty enough places to be sure of that. It's strange to me still this total 180 degree turn away from Newark, Brooklyn, loud subways and the faceless hordes... to Choctaw, Sumter, and Marengo counties, yard dogs, pasture horses, and the friendliest most personable people you'll ever encounter. I still long for travel and far-out places but a big part of me would be content to stay in Alabama forever and eventually get tucked away in Alabama dirt.

One week there's powdery snow and Alabama looks all sugarcoated. But it's good and cold. The next week warms up then the Pine trees explode with pollen, covering absolutely everything with a suspicious yellow film.

I initially thought it was toxic dust from the long-disputed chemical waste dump 20 miles north of these parts but the locals set me straight. The pollen invasion lasted about two weeks. To wash the car and clean windows was futile because the stuff quickly returns. It also finds it's way indoors, on to the dishes and all over the furniture.

This is Jody White and a couple of her kids. She's the English and Drama teacher at Demopolis High School in Marengo County. Jody's also on the board of the Coleman Center. Together we're developing a rather layered theater work which will probably keep us busy for the next year or so.
Jody's great aunt was Ruby Pickens Tartt, an early southern folklorist based in Livingston where Jody still lives. Throughout her life, Pickens Tartt was particularly close to the African American community and enjoyed their folk tales and songs. Working for the WPA in the 30's, she began recording these treasures for posterity. Pickens Tartt introduced her very good friend, Dock Reed, a legendary singer and basketmaker, to John and Alan Lomax. The rest is history as they say. Dock Reed and many Sumter County citizens can be heard on the famous Smithsonian Folkways recordings singing religious and secular songs as well as sharing folk tales and rhymes.
This collaboration with Jody and her students involves not only telling the story of Ruby and Dock but also bringing some of those stories and songs to the stage. It's a venture I'm privileged to be a part of. 

We're taking baby steps. I did a residency at Demopolis High for 8 weeks starting in March. In this time we decided to put together a short piece based on one of the stories, The Meeting of the Animals to Reform. It's about all the animals of the jungles, forests, and farms attempting to call a truce but failing to achieve peace because none are willing to compromise or sacrifice anything. There's a pertinent moral in there somewhere. I'm intrigued by the tale because it's clearly right out of Africa.
I introduced mask-making styles from many parts of Africa of course, but also Native American, Caribbean, and Modern European like DADA and Peter Schumann.
We constructed ours from laminated chipboard. Not too thick but strong enough to sculpt in a larger scale without flimsiness. Sculpted paper can become quite solid and durable depending on how you bend, fold, staple, and glue it. The students discovered some great stuff I think.

The American History class worked on the script and the drama class performed it. I stole students from both sections and a few other places to help build the masks.

We all attended a most fascinating lecture/presentation by Dr. Brown of West Alabama University. He's a Language expert specializing in Southern Black Dialects. It was a real trip to hear this midwestern white guy from, I think Minnesota, speaking in a perfect antebellum black accent. Not some cartoony Al Jolson impersonation but the real deal. He talked mostly about how tongues change over time and eventually get lost. Even here in deep south Alabama where natives may find it hard to understand local people of just a few generations ago.

The dilemma with our little show is how far do we go in presenting these stories as they were told before it becomes inauthentic, forced, or even offensive? I say these kids should just speak as they are. To my Yankee ears they're accented plenty enough . A huge part of my delight in Dixie is the language and the sound of the voices. I get a kick everyday out of something I hear. Everybody's still close enough to the source to bring the past forward in a convincing way.

They took the stage at the Sucarnoochie Folk Festival. The kids performed really really well and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Unfortunately, being that it was outdoors and they aren't seasoned Shakespeare actors with huge trained voices, most of the audience couldn't really hear a thing. I didn't even bother to record it. It was a great first step anyway.
We'll invest in cordless mikes and a sound system if we get that grant we're applying for.

I think the masks turned out excellent but it's time to make a drastic change in direction visually. Get as far away from that hard-to-avoid Lion Kingy thing as possible. We'll continue to follow Mose Tolliver and other self-made folk visionaries. Try to dig up more of that scary-but-true-southern-gothic-mind-bending-rational-art.