September 9, 2012 @ 7:38 pm
Last week was a busy one, multiculturally.
Tuesday night the family and I went to hear the Carolina Chocolate Drops at UNCG. They have an almost scholarly approach to their black string band tradition. They tell you before every number where the song came from. They’re particularly scrupulous about telling you which individual musician they learned the song from, emphasizing both the individual variation of “their” version and the inheritance and continuity of the musical tradition they belong to.
At the same time, they ain’t no chamber music group. Theirs is a living, breathing tradition. They joke and dance and clown around. There was a great slapstick bit where Dom and Hubby were playing the bones (wooden slats you play like the spoons) and included some pantomime baseball slapstick. At the last concert we saw, a year or so ago at Triad Stage, they had a beat-boxer with them. Now they’ve got a cellist. Next time it may be someone new.
The next night, Wednesday, we finished off the monthly entertainment budget at a preview of Triad Stage’s Trouble in Mind, a play about well-meaning black and white actors struggling with their own prejudices while they try to stage a cheesy anti-lynching play. It was well done, no doubt – funny, mean, deceptively obvious at moments but really subtle at others -- but my very perceptive wife pointed out that the only black people in the audience were the ushers. Even the white people were almost all at least a decade older than us. Fossils, frozen in a moment. Personally, I love historical stuff – I still watch M*A*S*H* on TVLand occasionally, or even Andy Griffith – but the contrast between the audiences and the overall vibes of the two evenings was stunning. It wasn’t economic, either; the two tickets were about the same price. Part of it was the venue, downtown vs. campus, maybe; it would be interesting to check the audience demographics of the previous CD show at Triad Stage (the one with the beat-boxer) and see if they were equally severe.
Thinking about the contrast between those two performances makes it a little easier to understand the reaction of my grad student BEACON trainees to a visiting instructor’s choice of two poems, both written by the same black author. Some of them apparently took offense at having a discussion technique demonstrated with poetry rather than a scientific argument; others perhaps at having a white person comment on black language to them; still others apparently at having older people talking down to them about their presumptive sexual habits. So my chair comes into my office to ask me something to the effect of:
You’re aware that single parenthood is a sensitive topic within the black community, right?
Um, yeah. Hell, it’s a sensitive topic in my own family.
But that’s the difficulty, right? The difficulty in knowing how much slack your audience is willing to cut you when you deliberately provoke them, in knowing what defines you as an insider or an outsider in any particular case. If you can define yourself as an insider, they will cut you a lot of slack. If you slip and define yourself as an outsider, they’re looking for excuses to dislike and dismiss you. It’s not only with race. It’s for any in-group/out-group difference, though race is maybe the most obvious one, visually. That’s the line that I’m always so impressed that the Chocolate Drops can dance that line, not stuttering and uncomfortable, but fluidly – angry one moment, laughing the next, but always alive. I think their success because for them, the music is primary, and the history lesson is secondary, an epiphenomenon.
Thanks to the Celtic jam session at Tate Street Coffee House for the writing music.