With “4000 Miles,” characters search for destinations uknown

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The NOLA Project presents “4000 Miles”
WHAT: Regional premiere of Amy Herzog’s comedy-drama about the relationship between a former ’60s radical and her visiting grandson. Directed by Beau Bratcher, starring James Bartelle and Carol Sutton
WHEN: Wed.-Sat. (Oct. 26-29 and Nov. 2-5), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Oct. 30), 2 p.m. (Nov. 2: “Bike to Show Night”)
WHERE: Ashé Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
TICKETS: $20-$35 (vary per night)
MORE INFO: Visit event page

Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” might be one of the most counter-intuitive works to be found on New Orleans stages this fall. It’s nominally a two-person comedy-drama, which doesn’t necessarily play to The NOLA Project’s strength as a deep well of ensemble performers. As a family tale, it lacks the narrative crackle of such intimate works as, say, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or the dreamlike quality of “The Glass Menagerie.” Even as a comedy-drama, you’re never really sure at which genre it particularly excels.

But in immediately recognizing what “4000 Miles” isn’t, there’s a danger of not recognizing what it is — a sublime meditation on honest and authentic human (and familial) emotions of honesty that features actors hitting all the right subtle notes in this pairing one of the city’s brightest young stars with one of its legends.

Even in its tight, 90-minute, one-act structure, and under the direction of Beau Bratcher, Herzog’s play creates a great deal of space for the two principal characters (and even two supporting characters) to present themselves as multi-dimensional and more than a little familiar. At its heart, literally and figuratively, are James Bartelle as Leo, showing up on the doorstep of his grandmother (Carol Sutton) showing more than the hard miles of his cross-county bicycle trek. Though familiar with each other’s work, Bartelle and Sutton are working together for the first time, and their chemistry together is immediate and astonishingly tender.

They’re both a little at odds with their future. Leo, having lost his best friend in an accident midway across the country, is directionless in life, much to the concern of his (unseen mother). Not that he was exactly driven before their trip, but the death has underscored an existential angst in Leo that should hit close to home for any millennials in the audience. By contrast, Vera is experiencing all of the losses of a nonagenarian, from teeth and words and hearing to her shrinking circle of friends, and she’s not taking it well. (Every tenth word, in her now-limited vocabulary, seems to be “whatchamacallit.” The worst part about growing old, she protests, is not being able to find the words.)

Their mutual concern for each other grows so naturally that, by the end of the play, you forget that they weren’t really that close at the beginning. There were signs, though; Vera’s a former ’60s radical, and it’s clear that Leo’s somewhere in that anti-establishment mix. He’s picked up her copy of “The Communist Manifesto,” and is digging it. While he initially is not prepared for her blunt candor, chafing when she calls his ex-girlfriend chubby, Leo grows to appreciate her honesty.

Likewise, Vera does not quite Leo or much of the information- and technology-obsessed generation, or its passion for newfound recreation. When he asks for money to go climb rocks in a gym, she gasps,“More than $50? To climb a wall?” But even Leo is not too crazy about technology. They both have computers, but Vera rarely uses hers. “I don’t like ’em,” says, who doesn’t even own a cellphone,“but I can use ’em.”

[Read more: James Bartelle comes a little closer to home]

Their differences might be underscored by the fact that they’re not even blood relatives. Adoption, with its vague whispers of distance, runs throughout “4000 Miles,” which might not sit too well with us folks who are keyed into the concept. But perhaps Herzog, in her 2013 Pulitzer Prize-nominated script, uses the device as a way to encourage her characters — as often unseen as seen — to encourage people to forge their connections with one another a little freer of the pressure of biological kinship.

Connections in “4000 Miles” are always messy, sometimes funny but always real, and this is where the supporting characters show their greatest value. There’s Bec, who, as played by Annie Cleveland, who as Leo’s ex-girlfriend feels fretful and concerned about him — and still very much in love with him — and not quite sure how to relate to Vera’s brutally frank observations. And there’s also Amanda, who, as hilariously played by Anna Toujas, represents possibly the world’s easiest one-night-stand opportunity for Leo. Even the admittedly “slutty” and drunken Amada senses red flags. When he gets her name wrong, she jokes that he’s only set himself back about 20 minutes, but ultimately her antenna warns her off from even a casual hook-up with a guy who clearly needs to work his personal shit out.

Vera’s world is surprisingly complicated for a woman of a certain age we think we know. We only know she’s been married twice, but not the why and how of it until later. And her problematic relationship with her next-door neighbor (another older woman) — carried on strictly by phone — only complicates her lonely existence in her Greenwich Village apartment.

Like a slow-drip faucet, facts, truths and anecdotes plop into the story, and we learn more about Vera’s romantic life and Leo’s tragic loss (often with the help of a shared marijuana joint). We learn, awkwardly, of Leo’s problems connecting with the people in his life, including his relationship with his tone-deaf mother and one with this adopted sister — a relationship that borders on the incestuous.

As mentioned previously, Bratcher handles this understated story and his actors with equal subtlety; at no point do we get much in the form of fireworks, and this is a good thing. These are characters and themes Bratcher wants us to find and understand and sympathize with on steady emotional terms, and if at times “4000 Miles” errs on the side of narrative caution, it’s forgivable.

The same can be said for John Grimsley’s set design — a spare apartment with a flood of books but light on art hanging on the walls — and Joan Long’s lighting. (Only the changing shade of light streaming from an outside window and against the building’s wall tells us what time of day it is.)

“4000 Miles” might not be the grandiose relationship story that gets some theater audiences all worked up — but by the end of the journey, thanks especially to this gifted cast — you’ll realize by the drive home just how far you’ve come.

“Ghosts in the Oaks” gives thrills and chills in City Park’s Carousel Gardens and Storyland (photos)

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The Friends of City Park sponsored the annual two-night “Ghosts in the Oaks” for the Halloween season Saturday-Sunday (Oct. 22-24) inside the Carousel Gardens and Storyland.

This family-friendly event included unlimited rides in Carousel Gardens, trick-or-treating in Storyland, arts and crafts, a pumpkin patch, airbrush tattoos, balloon animals, music and of course rides on its train. All proceeds from Ghosts in the Oaks went toward capital improvements in Carousel Gardens and Storyland.

With “4000 Miles,” the versatile James Bartelle comes a little closer to home

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The NOLA Project presents “4000 Miles”
WHAT: Regional premiere of Amy Herzog’s comedy-drama about the relationship between a former ’60s radical and her visiting grandson. Directed by Beau Bratcher, starring James Bartelle and Carol Sutton
WHEN: Thurs.-Sat. (Oct. 20-22), 8 p.m. (Thursday is NOLA Project board and company members only performance); Sun. (Oct. 23), 2 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. (Oct. 26-29 and Nov. 2-5), 8 p.m.; Sun. (Oct. 30), 2 p.m. (Nov. 2: “Bike to Show Night”)
WHERE: Ashé Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
TICKETS: $20-$35 (vary per night)
MORE INFO: Visit event page

In some ways, it’s easy to miss James Bartelle at first. He kind of sneaks up on you, and even then, his countenance is so serene, it’s almost as if he’s not even there. Or not obtrusive. But you can’t take your eyes off him.

It’s hard to explain. Until, maybe, you hear his story.

The man who has been called the big brother of The NOLA Project ensemble acting troupe, the man who has played Robin Hood as if in an identity crisis — gah, the man who has played a talking sheep, of all characters — can indeed come across as an enigma, a cipher. You can, I suppose, say that about a lot of actors, because so often they’re vessels of the writer and director.

But James Bartelle is different. Over the course of his decade in New Orleans — inspired, like many, by Hurricane Katrina — Bartelle has slowly, methodically, created a body of work that has theater critics calling him one of the best actors in the city. He’s won a few Big Easy Awards, and a few Storer Boone Awards.

And yet again, it feels like he’s snuck up on all of us. I remember the first time I met him, while sitting outside a coffee shop chatting with a friend, and he kind of just stopped by to say hi, sporting his wire-rim glasses, modestly coiffed afro, a slender frame and a matching voice. He was sweet, polite, reticent but not rude, and then went on his way — and you kind of kept watching him as he left. He leaves a mark.

Just as his title-role performance in last year’s “Robin Hood: Thief, Brigand” felt more like an ensemble delivery than a star turn, his supporting role as the sheep in “Marie Antoinette” was magnetic and unforgettable. “I watched lots of videos of sheep (to prepare),” said the man who most acknowledge is the first NOLA Project actor to work off-script on any given production.

Now the actor with a preference for Shakespeare roles and the ability to play animals taps into a role that might hit a little closer to home with the upcoming production of the Amy Herzog comedy-drama, “4000 Miles” — opposite one of New Orleans’ theater legends, Carol Sutton. In the Pulitzer Prize-finalist play, the 31-year-old Bartelle plays Leo, an affable but aimless twentysomething who shows up at the door of his grandmother, an octogenarian and former ’60s radical living in near isolation in New York. Leo’s just finished a cross-country bicycle trip, one that included a terrible tragedy en route, and now Leo isn’t sure where to head next, on or off his bike.

Facing her own existential crisis, his grandmother takes him in and they forge a bond that feels as much a friendship as a kinship. As one character learns how to play out the last chapter of her life, the other figures out how to face, hopefully, a longer yet still uncertain future.

For a young man who seven years ago had lost his mother to a suicide, traveled to India on a lark, and wound up in a psychiatric ward after having experimented with too many psychedelic drugs, James Bartelle maybe knows Leo a little better than the average actor — which could be a blessing and a curse.

“The part that’s a blessing is how well the role is written,” he says over coffee at Rue de la Course in Riverbend. “Usually when I choose to do a show, I specifically look for the ability to do something I hadn’t done before, so at the end of my career I can look back and say no two roles were similar. I have been, I guess, conscious or unconsciously looking for roles not too close to me. I’ve always just chosen roles that required an accent or a crazy voice or something contorting my body.

“I had a lot of connection with this character,” said Bartelle, associate artistic director for the company. “It’s hard to be that honest onstage. It’s easy to hide behind a voice or makeup or a crazy costume. It’s harder for me to speak like a normal being. There is something different about this role.”

If it’s a challenge, Bartelle has a cheering section like no other — starting with his co-star, Sutton.

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Kids get their soccer kicks with Mini FC Sundays in front of NOMA

mini-fc-soccerAs evidence continues to mount underscoring the importance of play in the lives of children, it was a happy coincidence to learn about the Mini FC soccer action. Every Sunday at 11 a.m., kids from all cultures gather in the front lawn of the New Orleans Museum of Art to play soccer as part of the Mini FC program.

The idea came to Coach Billy as a way to become more inclusive with recreational soccer, which, in league form (believe me), can be a bit, well, structured.

But with the coach and his fellow staffers, along with some parent volunteers, soccer in front of NOMA can include zombies, dirty socks, and other crazy game-like concepts that make these elementary school-age players forget that they’re actually learning something and simply having a blast. Most of the kids are Latino or Hispanic, though all kids are welcome.

While parents are welcome to bring their own refreshments, plenty of water is available.

You can learn more about Mini FC by friending the group on Facebook. Check out the video above, in which Coach Billy explains the value of the soccer play. Both coaches, however, can only commit to coaching the group through March (there will be a slight break later this fall), as they are both medical students awaiting placement for their respective residencies. Fingers crossed that they can keep this thing going.

Japan Fest at NOMA creates its own drum beat (photos)

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Had a nice time with friends and kids at the very kid-friendly 22nd annual Japan Fest at the New Orleans Museum of Art on Saturday (Oct. 8). The event included activities and food both inside and outside of NOMA, including a separate area of food and craft activities inside the The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden.

The festival included regular performances by Houston’s  Kaminari Taiko Drummers at the beginning, middle and end of the day. Elsewhere guests had access to traditional dance groups, tours of our Japanese art collection, martial arts demonstrations, a fashion show (featuring lots of anime/cosplay action), and Japanese food.

The event provided a big dress-up opportunity, and while I missed the fashion show, there were lots of folks traditional kimonos, Pokemon costumes, and other anime figures.

The festival was organized by NOMA in collaboration with the Consulate General of Japan in Nashville and the Japan Club in New Orleans, featuring 30 community groups and presenters.

Michael DeMocker of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune has great shots of the main performances here.

Also, check out the NOMA photo gallery from the 2015 fest.

Uncomfortably “Numb,” once again: Goat in the Road gets back in the chair

14500241_10154444151351760_8418151351694952114_o“Numb” — Chris Kaminstein directs Leslie Boles Kraus, Ian Hoch, Shannon Flaherty, Dylan Hunter, Emilie Whelan, Jake Bartush, and William Bowling
WHEN: Thurs.-Fri. (Sept. 29-30), 8 p.m.; Sat. (Oct. 1), 7 p.m. & 10 p.m.
WHERE: Catapult Performance Space (609 St. Ferdinand St.)
TICKETS: $15 general admission, $10 students
INFO: Visit the Facebook event page

I was always bummed I didn’t get “Numb” after interviewing Goat in the Road Productions’ Chris Kaminstein back in 2014 when the theater company presented this examination, so to speak, of all things pain management.

Fortunately, the show is back for an encore performance, relaunching last weekend and, following its run in the Catapult Performance Space (609 St. Ferdinand St.), will hit the road later this fall for a U.S. tour.

14290045_10154399846036760_1324648673572932237_oThe production, which won Big Easy Awards for Best Ensemble, Sound Design (Kyle Sheehan) and Original Work-Devised, is serving to kick off Goat in the Road’s 2016-17 season, though without original cast members Francesca McKenzie and Todd D’Amour (we miss them!). The work takes a look at early 19th century attempts at pain-free surgery, as well as “the ecstasy and intoxication of drugs that alter human consciousness, and the often-forgotten human stories that accompany advancement.”

It was a truly collaborative effort, director Kaminstein told me, in which the company partnered with the Pharmacy Museum as well as the Cachet Artist Residency Program to bring together experts in the field, as varied as Dr. Harry S. Gould, professor of Neurology and Neuroscience at the LSU Pain Mastery Program and a Cajun healer. The inspiration:

Goat in the Road has spent a couple of shows looking back at history to mine for interesting artistic material. One of the things I love realizing (over and over again), is that inventions we take for granted, like getting knocked out for surgery, have human complication attached to them. When nitrous oxide and ether were first being used in dental surgery in the mid-19th century, there was a tremendous battle between three men for the claim of being “first” to try it. Each man, over the course of 10 years or so, was destroyed by this fight in different ways. In “Numb,” you will see the story of Horace Wells, one of the first to try nitrous in dental operations, and his steady decline and eventual addiction to chloroform.

I’m planning to attend this evening’s performance and will share my thoughts soon after. Visit the Goat in the Road website for the rest of the 2016-2017 season.






OperaCréole sings out against gun violence with “Concert Across America”

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Music lovers might have missed out on OperaCréole’s performance at the Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday (Sept. 25) for the “Concert Across America,” co-sponsored with Ashé Cultural Arts Center, and part of a nationwide musical response to gun violence at more than 200 venues.

OperaCréole is a beautiful group to witness as it covers classical music across the African Diaspora, so it’s sometimes puzzling to see what at least feels like a lack of greater popularity in the New Orleans area. (I first saw, and wrote about, them at the 2015 New Orleans Jazz Fest, and with better photos.) But Sunday was a delight, if a somber one, given the tone of the evening as leader Givonna Joseph rooted the music in our nation’s long history with gun violence — stretching all the way back to the beginnings of slavery.

The performance was broken down into four major themes:“Mourning Our Ancestors: Africa to Reconstruction,” “Freedom Fighters,” “For Our Children” and“Change for the Future.” Working in collaboration with the Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church’s Chanel Choir, OperaCréole provided a space for each of its members to shine. OperaCréole opened with a beautiful team effort on “Great Creator” from Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s long-lost work, “Thelma” (rediscovered in 2012, a century after its debut), and then deftly blended “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

Tenor Prentiss Mouton delivered a stirring version of Hall Johnson’s “Po’ Moner Got a Home At Last” (with accompaniment by pianist Marcus St. Julien). Bass-baritone Ivan Griffin dug deep on his take on Glenn Burleigh’s traditional “Go Down Moses.” Soprano Kenya Lawrence Jackson wished a sweet “Prayer” from Langston Hughes by way of Ricky Ian Gordon. Mezzo-soprano Aria Mason (Joseph’s daughter) had to literally compose herself for her personal tribute to a former student, George Carter III, a local third-grader, who later became a victim a gun violence as a teen, with her “Being Good” from “Hallelujah, Baby!”

Kathleen Halm paid lovely tribute to Verdi’s “Requiem” (1st movement) and then joined OperaCréole on Moses Hogan’s “Walk Together Children.” Everyone chimed in on the finale, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” with members hoisting signs marking the cities that have experienced the most recent tragedies of gun violence. While the program encouraged the audience to contact legislators and community advocates to speak out against gun violence, the song was an apt coda on peace: Let it begin with me.


Ri Dickulous’ Top 5 inspirations (good and bad) for “Roped In,” an exhibition on binding rope

roped-inWHAT: “Roped In: Binding Rope and Art Photography Showcase”
WHEN: Sat. (Sept. 24), 6 p.m.
WHERE: The Art Garage, 2231 St. Claude Ave.
MORE INFO: Visit the Facebook event page

She does sword swallowing and glass art, sure, but, performer Ri Dickulous is bound and determined to expose, educate and entertain people about the often-misunderstood world of all things binding rope. So that’s why we asked her to ponder some of the cultural ties to the form, so to speak, and she responded with an amazing description of the form, and the elements that might help informer “Roped In” exhibition in collaboration with photographer Josh Hailey on Saturday at The Art Garage. (Check out this preview on WGNO’s “News With a Twist.”)

Shibari, taken literally from the Japanese phrase meaning “to tie,” has a long standing tradition within Japanese culture entwined into the erotic arts, more specifically known as kinbaku. Before that, it had been utilized as a method of torture for prisoners and soldiers, known as hojojitsu. Within the past 50 years or so there has been a surge of Western fascination within the art, spurring people who had been playing tie ’em up games as children and turning it into damsel in distress games seen by popular figures such as Bettie Page.

Today we are able to see many applications of Japanese and Western inspired rope bondage, from fashion macrame clothing, to suspensions geared to challenge the mind and body. It seems as if the art form itself is only hindered by the imagination of those that hold the knots in their hands, and so we currently are in the process of a Renaissance of rope bondage.


Ri Dickulous

Personally, I began my rope journey nearly 10 years ago in the Washington, D.C., area, bottoming predominantly and learning all the while how it would feel to experience different styles of tying, the different types of materials used in tying, and learning basic terminology/names to know/essential ties seen in traditional shibari and Western tying.

Personally I was always drawn to rope bondage because I loved all of the sensory elements of it (sound, sight, smell, feel and occasionally taste) that would be able to focus my attention and bring me immediately into my body with the right rigger. Since moving to New Orleans, I decided that I wanted to tie myself predominantly, and within the past two years began tying others in an effort to translate my knowledge gained over a significant period of time. Josh Hailey approached me about doing a photo series inspired by these sorts of ties, and I agreed with the caveat that each four hour photography session would begin with a half hour lecture on the essentials of being tied up. I insisted on not teaching others how to tie, but what they needed to know in order to stay safe whenever they were tied up.

The result was thousands of images of individuals in beautiful, unique ties, as well as a small community of people who have been tied together into a unique experience focused on education, personal advocacy, generating safety in community, and of course art.

Below are five sources of inspiration that drove me to this project, ranging from “I wanted to inspire people to not do it this way” to “I want people to feel that this style of art of accessible and open to their involvement.”.

“FIFTY SHADES OF GREY” — I grit my teeth whenever anyone mentions “Fifty Shades,” but the fact of the matter is that the subject matter opens up the whole world of BDSM to people who may have previously had preconceived notions of what the BDSM scene is all about. The reaction of the community to this book and movie was astounding, and people who had been living and performing in this lifestyle for years flocked out of the closets and dungeons in order to enlighten the public that “Fifty Shades” is in fact a great example of BAD BDSM practices. Many have heard the songs from The Weeknd, and seen the music video where there is a woman suspended as a chandelier. Not the best example of suspension I’ve ever seen, but it’s super shiny and a great way to begin to explain what sort of things can be seen within this scene other than whips and chains.

“TIED,” BY WYKD DAVE — This video is emblematic of artistic posing seen in much of shibari video art. In performance art, the rigger plays much more of a role, often becoming incorporated into a sort of a dance. This video, however, is a stellar example of technical skill and variation within differing poses. The artist is able to continue her work, with the rope simply adding to her work as opposed to completely taking over her work. I was fortunate, years ago, to attend an intensive hosted by Wykd Dave and learned a great deal of focusing on the basics of tying, especially things like the morphology of knot work, how the lines should lie, and why all of those things are important when overall conveying the desired effect in tying.

FRED KYREL — I cannot tell you how many people refer to this man’s work whenever I mention that I do shibari. This falls into more of the erotic macrame element of shibari and is considered to be very modern, experimental, and Western. The designs are laid on the body so that once they are removed, they can never be replicated exactly the same way ever again. True couture, at its finest.

GARTH KNIGHT — In the more experimental realm of artistic installation and performance art, we see Garth Knight. Well known for his bindings to render his models to look like they have grown into the roots of trees, or the inter bindings of cardiovascular tissues, he continues to be brought up as another artist who is brought up consistently to me as a jaw-dropping rope artist.

KINOKO HAJIME — Finally, blending traditional and experimental Japanese rope art is Kinoko Hajime. I feel bad to include him last within this five-part pop series, but I figured that I would approach this topic from how a Westernized American may be approaching Japanese rope bondage. First, “Fifty Shades,” then music videos, then what would you get if you did a simple Google search for rope bondage. Kinoko Hajime is a contemporary artist who certainly deserves mention within this field, as he is one of the driving forces for innovating the current rope Renaissance, along with other artists such as Akira Naka. Kinoko’s work focuses on red rope of different sizes and different purposes, giving it a very visceral feel to every one of his images and blends the traditional with the innovative seamlessly. Even if you haven’t seen his work before, you should take a look and get an idea of what sort of images can be created while blending the old styles with the new.

The Reverend Pastor Father Brother Ben Wisdom explains his spiritual path

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WHAT: Brother Nutria
WHEN: Tues. (Sept. 20), 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Hi-Ho Lounge

With his work as a producer and host for the Snake Oil Festival and Slow Burn Burlesque along with emceeing Bella Blue’s Dirty Dime Peepshow, Ben Wisdom has carved out his niche as the fallen preacher man who has succumbed to, revels in and even peddles the sins of the flesh. It’s as if Jimmy Swaggart had decided to stay on Airline Drive. It’s something into which he’s evolved over the years, and when he’s at the top of his game he’s one of the funniest comedians in New Orleans. He’s even become a radio host with his show “The Ministry of Misbehavin’” on 102.3 FM WHIV and WHIVfm.org, Tuesdays from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. But there is a context to his conversion, and he was gracious enough to share his journey with us as his band, Brother Nutria, prepares for its gig on Sept. 20 at the Hi-Ho Lounge.

I have a pretty interesting and fun life. I’m a burlesque emcee and show producer in New Orleans, Louisiana. I love “the city that care forgot” as well as a healthy dose of downright debauchery, so burlesque in the town I love is a good fit for me. However, I haven’t always been down with the “ways of the devil,” or the promiscuity of the Crescent City. In a different life I was a devout follower of Pentecostal Christianity. I was baptized three times. I spoke in tongues. I even, for a brief time, considered becoming a preacher.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen, I guess? My going from devout holy roller to filthy burlesque emcee was a long journey, and as you can probably guess, my relationship with religion is now and really always has been complicated. And, that’s why I can’t seem to get it out of my act. I’m known for some of my, I guess you would call them catch phrases — “amen and amen again,” and “hallelujah and hallelujah to ya.”

I often incorporate religious themes into my performance, and I even have a character, The Rev. Pastor Father Brother Ben Wisdom, that is a full-on, bent, Pentecostal preacher who extolls the virtue of having no virtue. This character was first born at a Slow Burn Burlesque show called, “Jesus’ Big Birthday Bash” — it was our twisted version of a Christmas show). I further developed the character in a show I co-produce with my partner and co-creator, Little Luna, called the “Unholy Roller Revival,” which is a mock tent revival that we have put on every year at the variety arts festival that we also produce, called Snake Oil Festival. I use the Preacher character as a lens to hold up to what I consider to be the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the people who use Christianity to rule us.

And, now, the preacher character is going through another evolution. A year ago, I joined a group of great guys (MarkAlain Dery, Nate Pendergast and Kit Keen) here in New Orleans, and we formed the band, Brother Nutria. We all share in the songwriting duties, but I probably write two-thirds of the lyrics, and as you might have guessed those lyrics are full of thoughts questioning the world view as seen through the eye of so-called modern Christian America. We have song titles like “Gospel Billy Preacher,” “Ready to Sin” and “Holy Ghost Drone Strike.” In the latter, we sing, “We’re all good people. We’re all sanctified. And, when it comes to Christian white folks, his love is double wide.”

ben-smokeI was introduced to religion at a young age. My father was raised in a conservative Catholic household in New Orleans. My mother was raised in non-denominational, full gospel churches is Forth Worth, Texas. As young adults and parents, mine weren’t super religious, despite their upbringings. Before I was about 9 or 10, I don’t remember going to church that much except for with my grandparents. However, my most vivid early memory is from when I was somewhere around 4 or 5 years old. It is a memory of my parents allowing me to attend the Pentecostal tent revival being put on by two of my Dad’s friends, who were former drug addicts turned holy-rolling missionaries. Their son was the same age, as me and we were fast friends. I can recall the sites and sounds of that night. We were in some field in or around Vidalia, La., which is right next to Ferriday, the hometown of Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, which is where we also lived. In the field they had set up trailers for the ministers and singers. There was a humble stage at the center of it all. That stage was equipped with some ancient PA system that amplified each of the speakers and singers to the point of over-modulation. It was all lit in the dark night by blinding construction lights of some kind.

There was a smell of boiled peanuts in the air.

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The woman behind the coolest kiss at Southern Decadence


Photo by @carrotellis

At first it seemed like a lark of a moment, an image I saw on Instagram and happened to “repost” using an app, of two women sharing a kiss in front of a bunch of religious protestors during the festivities of the 45th annual Southern Decadence celebration in the French Quarter. (This also was the same day of the grand marshal’s walking parade.)

Little did Jordan, the woman pictured at right, know that a playful moment with her roommate would have a little viral moment, garnering more than 200 “likes” on Instagram as well as several shares (including by me). Jordan (she preferred to use only her first name) is a master’s student at a Philadelphia school, hoping to become a physician’s assistant, and currently is doing a women’s health rotation in Mississippi. So this really was a bit of a happy coincidence. Here Jordan responds to a few emailed questions about the moment.

What brought you down to Southern Decadence on Saturday?
I’m currently on my women’s health rotation in Mississippi; I’ll be here in the South for five weeks total. This was our only long weekend, so my roommate and I planned a trip to (New Orleans) without even thinking about it, and my boyfriend flew down from Baltimore and met us. So it was totally serendipitous that we happened upon this goldmine of a festival.

How did that photo come about?
After a glorious brunch and a few mimosas, we followed the trail of glitter and assless chaps making our way to the parade. Before the parade even started, we saw a crowd of people, heard some yelling, and realized what was going on. After watching the protesters for a little while we were about to leave because we didn’t want to feed into the negativity and give them what they wanted. But then we thought maybe we’d just be bold and remind them why they wasted their time on “the Lord’s day” to bully strangers. We walked right up in the cleared street, right next to the police officers trying to maintain the peace, and kissed like we hadn’t seen each other in years.

I am in the photo, kissing my roommate, a dear friend of mine. We are just two like-minded women who believe in sexual fluidity, and refuse to fight anger with more anger. We didn’t want to yell at them, we just wanted to show them that their presence was meaningless, that their attempts at intimidation were not going to work. One of the more ironic parts of the story is that the shot was taken by my loving, male partner of two and a half years.

What was the reaction of the protesters? Onlookers?
The protesters seemed confused, and just tried yelling about how disgusting we were. They repeatedly condemned us, saying that we’re “gonna burn in hell” and my friend calmly responded,“Well, at least I’ll be with her.” And aside from a few giggles, those were the only words either of us said. The onlookers cheered and drowned out the negativity, someone with a bullhorn was taunting them asking why they liked watching it if it was such a sin, and a woman came up and “beaded” us before we walked off hand in hand. Continue reading