Friday, December 23, 2016

[2016] The Christmas Revels: An Acadian-Cajun Celebration of the Winter Solstice

I took my mom to Christmas Revels tonight.

I wasn't expecting Revels to be explicitly political, but the Introduction in the program from Artistic Director Paddy Swanson said:

One might think that the grim underpinnings of this year's Revels would make for a gloomy Christmas celebration. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paradoxically, the darkness of this story sets off the brilliant light of the Acadian spirit.

At this time, with over 65 million displaced persons adrift in the world, the historical fate of the Acadians who were expelled from their homeland by the English in 1755 may seem a relatively small tragedy, a sad story that humans seem doomed to repeat generation after generation. At the heart of the story, however, embedded in their music and customs, is a unique Acadian lesson in survival and change that remains as powerful and topical as ever. This is an example of a community that endured and adapted and in the end created an alternative identity for itself as Cajun, Music was the thread that tied together the Acadian people's experience of pain and joy. If they had to walk, they would fashion a walking song. [...]

And when David Coffin was teaching us the songs at the beginning, he told us we were to stand for the third and final verse of "The Sussex Mummer's Carol," saying, "These days, you've gotta stand for something -- or you'll fall for anything," and yes a lot of people groaned at the old joke, but I also felt like the first half was really pointed.

The scene where the British soldiers come to the Acadians [in what is now Nova Scotia] and basically tell them that this land is under British control now and they can leave or they can stay -- on the condition that they sign a loyalty oath, their practice of their religion might be outlawed in the future, etc. -- felt really resonant in this current historical moment -- a new regime that you didn't ask for takes control, and you don't know if you're safe in your homeland anymore.

I had been excited to see in the program


Warsan Shire is a Somalian writer based in England who distills the refugee experience into haunting poetry. Her work has recently achieved popularity as the poetic underpinning of Beyoncé's latest album Lemonade.

but I still wept as I watched two adults tell a child a to leave.
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
[I think the fragment the Revels scene closed with ended with "leave" repeated, transitioning to "go," but the rest of that verse, which closes out the full poem, is so powerful.]

The next piece was the "Lord of the Dance," which always precedes intermission, and which felt jarringly upbeat after that low-light recitation, but that song is a story of the Christian triumph over death, so it also felt somewhat appropriate, that defiant joy even in the midst of so much loss and sadness and uncertainty.

So much walking happens, and the little girl says she hates war (they've been evicted from their homeland because the British and French keep fighting over it), and then we sang "Dona Nobis Pacem" (which we sing almost every Revels) and introing it, David said something like, "Let's make a little peace, at least for this moment."

The Acadians learn of land in Louisiana available from the Spanish and travel down there. The little girl wishes for a proper Christmas, and her companion asks what she wants, offers her a make-believe Christmas. The first thing she says she wants is a house, and I started tearing up again.

The Three Kings show up (one played by a woman, I was pleased to note), in Mardi Gras aesthetic, and Caspar says to her, "In your time you may be Ah-cadians, but in our time you're just Cajuns," and says that she's already either "home" or "family," I forget, but I was really touched. I'm not into blood connections as inherently meaningful, but the idea of those connections across time and space, of people finding each other, of people welcoming each other as family...

In The Mummers' Play, King Rex fights King Alligator, and at one point the Alligator says something like, "I could defeat you with one hand tied behind my back," and King Rex makes a comment about his small hands, and the audience laughs, and Rex stays paused, like, "You get it?" and I suspect most of us got it the first time, but people laughed again. After Rex defeats the Alligator, he chases him offstage saying something like, "Get out of here or I'll drain your swamp," and the Alligator says, "Promises, promises..." So yeah, Revels, not afraid to use humor to punch up.

After the Sword Dance and the ritual killing of the King, someone asks if there's a doctor in the house, and enter Dr. John (in an outfit like this one, minus the bone necklace -- Revels photo here) and The Dixie Cups (with elaborate headdresses such that I first thought they were doing a drag queen aesthetic). It felt like the most contemporary music/dance I've seen in Revels.

After we sang The Sussex Mummer's Carol (the end of the show), the band played upbeat music for a while, and it felt really good and important. The annual reading of Susan Cooper's poem "The Shortest Day" (which comes right before that song in the program), listening to it this year I was thinking about the fierce reveling against the darkness, keeping the light alive.

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