Sunday, October 26, 2008

Children Will Listen

As we close in on Election Day, it's important to stop, for a  minute, and think about the powerful role inspiration plays in our lives.  A great deal of the Obama campaign's success in recruiting volunteers and donations has been due to the simple message "Yes We Can," which has triumphantly taken root in nearly every demographic.  If you stop and wonder why those three simple words have become such a fiercely motivating force in today's political landscape, you might find yourself remembering how many times -- and in how many different ways -- all kinds of people were told "No, you can't."

How many times in your own life did someone tell you that you couldn't do something because (a) you didn't have the money to afford it, (b) you didn't have the physical strength to accomplish it, (c) you didn't have the intellect to think your way through it, (d) life wasn't fair, (e) you didn't have the skills or talent necessary to complete the task, (f) you weren't good looking enough, (g) you didn't have the right friends and connections, (h) it just wasn't going to happen for you, or, when all else failed, (i) "...because I said so and that's all there is to it!"

While dreams get trampled every day, the struggle to overcome one's circumstances rarely stops. Two monologues seen this weekend offered a testament to the power of a child's perceptions as to what he can and cannot achieve.  Each was shaped by experiences within a minority subculture. Each led to a brilliant performance by a uniquely talented artist.

Sunday's matinee was devoted to the latest show to emanate from the mind and fantasy world of Wayne Harris, a master storyteller who is currently performing May Day Parade at The Marsh.  A walking one-man band, Harris began his career as a horn player in a drum and bugle corps in St. Louis, Missouri.   

As his narrative unfolds we meet the older people shaping his view of life, ranging from his grandmother Mamabelle (noted for her biting criticism and awesome "shelf booty") to an over-the-top Baptist preacher; from the women at the local hairdresser's salon to a group of "Letter Girls" (too large to ever become cheerleaders)  who drive the crowd wild by bumping and grinding their way down the street during the parade.  
"Just the sight of them big butt girls in short skirts doing the 'Dirty Dog' down Newstead Boulevard put the crowd into a frenzy," Harris recalls with the wide-eyed wonder of an eight-year-old boy.

The 100-member Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church's Drum & Bugle Corps had a huge impact on Harris as a youth.  Like everyone, he loved a parade.  But as a young boy struggling with polio, being able to march in a parade presented a tough physical and intensely personal challenge. 

As I listened to his narrative -- and, especially, his father's aching questions about why, if the new Salk polio vaccine was supposed to be available for everyone, it was not available for his son --  I was bowled over by the carefully-crafted nuances, intensely personal speech cadences, and fine layers of depth Mr. Harris brought to his extended family and loving cast of characters.   As a trained musician, his sense of pacing combines with the colors of his voice to create indelible impressions of the people in his neighborhood whose larger-than-life personalities grew even bigger before his impressionable adolescent eyes.

In The Mayday Parade, Harris is so adept at painting pictures with words that the audience never doubts that a parade is coming down the street.  Whether Harris is using his body language to portray an old man teaching young boys the proper use of the glide step, the foul-mouthed preacher's son holding up the other end of the banner, or a prudish aunt who thinks everything happening on the street is an affront to Christ, I haven't seen anyone pull off this kind of magical, mystical one-man parade since Professor Harold Hill landed in River City to tell its citizens about the day when: 

"Seventy-six trombones led the big parade, 
With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand.  
They were followed by rows and rows 
Of the finest virtuousos 
The cream of every famous band."
It's quite an accomplishment -- and well worth paying a visit to The Marsh to share in the excitement and pathos!

* * * * * * * *

A childhood filled with gay-bashing insults had a different, if equally profound effect on the adolescent Clinton Leupp, who evolved into the infamous Miss Coco Peru. Although she can now boast of having been married in a castle in Spain -- on the Mediterranean -- Coco's first claim to fame was in a bitter drag queen's stunning monologue in the movie Trick (1999).  This moment never fails to impress:

Since scoring in Trick, Miss Coco has moved up in the world.  Having performed in bars, on gay cruises, and at numerous fundraisers (as well as for gay theater companies like San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre Center), Coco is now headlining in some pretty ritzy cabaret spaces -- like the Nikko Hotel's swanky Rrazz Room, where she is alternating with singer Andrea Marcovicci.

For those who remain clueless about the kinds of insults which filled Coco's childhood, she explains it in the following clip from Ugly Coco:

Having matured as both an artist and a drag queen, Coco can now look back at that confused little boy who was called a fairy in the school cafeteria with a more worldly wisdom.  She takes that wisdom wherever she goes, spreading her drag queen gospel far and wide:

No matter how many times you catch Miss Coco Peru in performance, she never fails to leave an impression -- especially when describing what it's like to share an intense personal therapy session with Liza Minelli in a helicopter flying over New York harbor at night.  There's absolutely no way to do that number justice in print.  You'll just have to go find out for yourself.

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