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.”
I 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.
My friend, the missionary’s son, and I had unfettered access to the trailer that was being used by his family. People were allowed to leave their children unsupervised then, and we had the run of the place. We played and rough-housed, but we also listened to the message being blasted from those crackling speakers.
At some point in the night, I found myself listening to my friend’s mother and father preaching the gospel of salvation. It was a hellfire-and-brimstone salvation gospel. They drilled into the audience’s head, and into mine, the argument that if we did not accept Jesus Christ into our hearts and repent of our sins, we would burn in hell forever. They told us of the unconditional love of Jesus and the unending torment that our loving Lord would inflict if we did not obey his every command.
Their condemnations were made especially frightening by the distortion added to their voices by the shitty PA system. This message went into my ears and straight to my heart. I believed their doctrine, and it scared the hell out of me. They had the audience bow their heads and repeat the prayer of Salvation. I don’t know why, but for some reason I did not pray with the crowd. I went back to the trailer and waited for my friend’s mother, the minister, to come back. Once, she arrived, I told her that I wanted to be saved.
We knelt and prayed that Jesus would forgive me for all of the sins that I had committed in my five short years on this planet. I gave my life to God right there on my knees in a lowly trailer being hauled around Louisiana by a couple of Jesus freak former methheads. I look back on that moment and think, “What the fuck?”
This wouldn’t be my final interaction with religion. This is the South, brothers and sisters, and we’re all a little touched down this way, especially by Jesus. Long story made short: My parents divorced when I was 7, my mother took my sisters and I to Fort Worth. Mom found religion and so did I. I went through varying phases of commitment. Being a teenager, I sometimes “gave into temptation” aka masturbation and occasionally drinking, but I always believed in Jesus and Christianity. My father found the Lord circa 1994, and my parents got remarried when I was circa 16.
We moved to Alexandria, where my old man had joined the United Pentecostal Church (UPC). In the UPC they don’t believe in men wearing the short pants or having long hair and beards, women showing their legs or wearing makeup, and a lot of ’em don’t have a TV, which may make them smarter than most of us.
Looking back, it sucked pretty bad. Once, when I was about 19, I was so guilt-ridden from the blind assholes in my youth group at our mega-church telling me that my rock ’n’ roll records were of the devil, that I threw my cd collection into the dumpster at the radio station where I worked. Can you say irony?
I was on some kind of weird path to being another cog in the machine or probably more likely fodder for the cannon, or even still more likely some self righteous religious douche nozzle. You know, the kind you can’t stand at work, because they feel like your asking them not to speak in tongues in their cubicle or to not commence in intercessory prayer during work hours is persecution. But, then magic happened and I went to college.
I had been warned about college. It was a place where professors would try to drive a wedge between me and my faith with something called empirical evidence. It took a few years for my evolution on religion to get to its current station, but my transformation began in my freshman year when I took a philosophy class. It was the first time that I had really been introduced to opposing ideas in a setting where I was encouraged to lay aside my former training and be open to what was being taught. My professor had us consider the fact that there may be an edge to the universe and that there may be a finite number of things in the universe, and if that were so, then God’s knowledge could not be infinite because there might be only a limited number of things to know. All my life people had told me of God’s unlimited power and knowledge.
If it was possible that God had limits, then what else was possibly wrong with my religion? There were more college courses to inform me. In biology, my professor explained to me what evolution and natural selection actually were. I had always been told evolution was godless and a lie and in no way true, like the truth about every species on earth having made their way to Noah’s Ark at God’s behest and then peacefully settling upon a cramped ark that was set adrift for 40 days and nights. Then, there were my ancient history classes that showed that Christianity was just the same old sun worship handed down by the Egyptians.
Despite all of this evidence, what really changed my beliefs were my interactions with people who didn’t go to church. I’m surrounded by beautiful and loving people of all colors, genders, sexual preference and beliefs. These people love me and I love them. To me, Christianity and 99 percent of religions only pretend to care about all people. Don’t believe it? Just look at their actions. Denying people rights because they don’t follow Christian doctrine or because they dare to love someone of the same sex or some gender they can’t comprehend, racism and white superiority, calling the poor lazy so you don’t have to help them, and a thirst for war and the blood of Muslims are just a few of the Christian practices that I can point you to.
I don’t know what ultimately caused me to create “The Preacher” character. I’m sure part of it was out of a desire to do something different. Other people have done a preacher in burlesque, but mine is authentic as hell. Maybe, because of my experience with immersion into Pentecostal, white, conservative religion, and my transformation from devout believer to hardened skeptic, I had to say something. Or maybe, and more likely, I am forever scarred and traumatized by the tyranny of organized religion — and my mocking Christian hypocrisy is some sort of catharsis.
Whatever it is, I created the Reverend Pastor Father Brother Ben Wisdom character, and he was born of fire. The first time I ever performed as “The Preacher,” I felt like I was filled and inspired by some spirit akin to what I felt when I used to believe that I was filled with the Holy Ghost. It’s never a hard act for me to pull off.
When I need inspiration, I just dig into my soul and channel the preachers I witnessed growing up, or maybe I’m even channeling some known or unknown spirit. Whatever it is, it gives me great joy to use the methods and mannerisms of apostolic preachers to point out their hypocrisies. My religious upbringing in not unique in the South. It makes me feel good to give voice to what I know other people in the audience are thinking about and dealing with. When I perform as the Reverend Pastor Father Brother, I can preach the gospel of sex, rock and love, and I think people hear it — and more importantly, they believe it!