Entertainer Murray Hill has a new show, “This IS Comedy”. I am one of Murray’s 3 showgirl “Murrayettes”. Burlesque and dancing ... couldn’t be more fun!
In an industry where ego takes a shellacking, mine is as shiny as they come; so it is with no false humility that I say that I'm the gal you hire when the picture calls for a sassy, sharp, sexy female with a throwback attitude. There, I said it.
See, I was weaned on the classic movies where wit & wiles were the qualities that drove the story & provided the entertainment. A performer had to bring more to the table than a fresh face; they had to speak from a frame of reference. I saw females not afraid of displaying their experience, and showing wisdom & femininity as not mutually exclusive. Those are the roles that speak to me, and where I am in my element. Old-school stars like Barbara Stanwyck; Kathryn Hepburn; Susan Hayward; Ida Lupino (also a prolific director); and Gloria Grahame: all examples of tough-talking, brainy females that were also flirtatious and inviting--a dazzling combination that is hard to coax out of teenage actresses that, in a predatory business, may not even be worldly enough yet, say, to walk that delicate balance between maintaining one's virtue and sparing a man's ego.
Strong images are re-emerging in force, though, after a post-war drought in which women more often were depicted as damsels in distress rather than self-possessed women; or as marginalized characters, ie. the supportive wife or the evil temptress (acceptable archetypes for a sexist society--they did, after all, need to coax Rosie the Riveter back into the kitchen.) In the past few years, on TV alone--both cable & network--the list of grown women with their own shows (or stealing the show) is encouraging: Mary Louise Parker, Tina Fey, Jane Lynch, Julianna Margulies, Laura Linney, Edie Falco, Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick, Kate Walsh, Holly Hunter, and more.
It is also inspirational (and about time) to see women over 40 playing more women of strength in Hollywood films: Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Patricia Clarkson, Regina Taylor,Helen Mirren, Tilda Swinton, Annette Bening, Angela Bassett, Diane Lane, Julianne Moore, Marcia Gay Harden, Marisa Tomei, among others. These are women I identify with, and who play character types I am looking to play--and can play, with conviction: women that prove that wit & intelligence--and experience-- enhances sex appeal.
Musings on a Monster I was in the Waverly diner reading Las Noticias when I choked on my hamburger. It happened when I sucked in my breath at the news that the Juice goes to trial for trying to rough up two memorabilia dealers who dared to serve him with a sliver of karmic payback. In any language, that means pop the popcorn: the mother of all reality shows again has bullied its way into the programming lineup. Who cannot get excited at the prospect of watching in morbid fascination another installment of the train wreck that has become OJ’s life? I mean, really--who has forgotten the exquisite opera of OJ making his getaway in the Ford Bronco with his myrmidon pal, as we all watched the chase, mile by mile? It was like one of those “stupid criminal” videotapes where the thieves crash into the front window of a 7-11 and fail to escape because the front bumper gets caught on a magazine rack.
I remember exactly where I was when the verdict was read. Do you? Those are singular moments, when the country stops and communally experiences a mouth-dropping, head-scratching blow to logic. I was on a Merrill Lynch sales floor, an admittedly all-white one, and the usual quotidian din went mute that afternoon. But after blinking a few times, I couldn’t say I was all that surprised. As a subject that has always compelled me--I minored in African-American history and was locked for years in spirited political & historical debate on every shade of the black experience with historian friends—-the elusiveness of true equality for black Americans, particularly in the justice system, is the one enduring blot on our culture that is assured of periodically erupting from the pressure.
And in a country that has just, in the past year, witnessed the Jena Six, nooses hanging off trucks, two men being dragged to their deaths on ropes from the back of trucks in separate incidents (my grandfather’s uncle suffered the same grisly end at the hands of British soldiers in Ireland) and the illogical ranting of a desperate Michael Richards, we all know the progress of race relations has veered off into a ditch somewhere. How improbable is it for a mostly African-American jury suddenly invested with the power to dispense justice to want to give the system a taste of its own medicine?
I could only wonder about the figure anointed to make the point, teach the lesson. OJ--a man that has never been known for giving back to his own community; who has been regarded since his football days as somewhat of an Uncle Tom; whose prowess on the field doesn’t count as breaking barriers--as professional sports, through which he enriched himself mightily, is the only arena where performance trumps the race card; and who could not articulate his way out of a paper bag, even if his life depended on it. (Lucky for him, it never did.)
But brutish lug-heads like him lash out instead of think, like when he vivisected the wife he had a history of physically abusing, along with her lover, in front of his home. (I think I can dispense with the word “alleged” here; we all--including the jury that set him free, in their little heart of hearts--know damn well that he did it.)
Any other idiot would thank the universe for the free ticket, grow a beard, and run a hundred million miles in the other direction. Sprinting and hurdling, even, like the football star did in his Hertz Rent-a-Car commercials, suitcase in hand. But like another famously egotistical blowhard (who, luckily can "fire" anyone that disagrees with him), OJ’s own self-perception trumps his awareness of his public persona. So he goes on autograph-signing junkets, speculates publicly about how he would have killed his wife had he done it, tries, along with a couple of gun-wielding accomplices, to strong-arm a couple of men making profit off his dubious image and generally flits around the flame like a moth--that drunken insect that is so easy to swat because it’s so stupid.
But I have supreme confidence in the universal intelligence. It does not necessarily operate on our timetable, or even in the manner in which we would wish it, but one way or the other, evil eventually get served—and with three times more sting. What goes around, comes around. And it will, because OJ didn’t just murder his wife. He killed her and her companion savagely, with visceral intensity, with extreme emotion, calling up energy in a universe that is now imprinted with that ferocity and bloodthirstiness. Those vibes are like a big bulls-eye to the force in the sky. And no matter how fast the Juice sprints, he won’t be able to elude that payback.
“When I was 13, I saw Boy George on TV, and I ran in the bathroom, locked the door and shaved off my eyebrows. I’m 36, and I haven’t had them since".
World Famous *BOB*, a girl who doesn’t have to look back, obliged the intrusion into her past on a rainy Tuesday as we sat in the living room of her pad, “The Pink Cupcake”, and recalled some of the good, the bad and the beautiful in her life—influences that have molded her into one of downtown NY’s preeminent performance artists.
“I became really excited with the concept of recreating yourself. Boy George’s face was this beautiful mask that he had painted; and there seemed to be a lot of choice in his look, and in that I saw freedom.”
That desire for freedom to express might have come from growing up on a farm in San Luis Obispo in a redneck area with little tolerance for individuality--which meant anyone other than a white male. “If you were a minority--meaning woman, overweight, gay, Mexican, black--there were problems. Hey, anyone who went through the 80’s with an ounce of style in a small town...”
*BOB*’s own style--one part Marilyn, one part Dolly, one part slip-showing drag, all viewed through pink-tinted lens from a bubble bath--is clearly an example of taking lemons and making lemonade. Pink lemonade.
Her presence on the burlesque scene is commanding: at 5’11” without heels, with ample bust & hips, brown eyes framed by high thinly-penciled brows and a voice with hints of a drag queen’s timbre, she exudes extravagant femininity. With a relaxed manner & wit, she is regarded as one of the community’s more prominent personalities, and aside from her own performances frequently finds herself playing MC to live shows. Her favorite spot, though, is as hostess of her own “World Famous *BOB* Presents!”, a monthly revue that introduces the new crop of burlesque dancers to the scene.
“I’m very proud of the show. I love to take beginners and provide a platform for them to realize their dreams onstage. And watch the excitement of just starting out.” Her role as mentor is befitting, given the nurturing that her own self-image and sense of style received when she was a teenager: Nina Hagen, Souixie Sioux, and when she was younger, Cher, Charro, and Dolly Parton all represented “over-the-top” female images she related to. So were men dressed as women.
“I saw Jimmy James when I was about 10—he’s gonna kill me—on the Donahue Show and was bowled over with how beautiful he was.” (James is a female impersonator/singer who in the 80’s & 90’s did an eerily accurate portrayal of Marilyn, videos of which can be seen on YouTube.)
By age 13, she was playing with her own her look and befriended by gay peers in the New Wave/Goth scene, where image and identity were regularly manipulated. She made stencils with an Exacto knife and poster board for the eyebrows she had shaved--“this was before Ricky’s” (the NYC beauty-supply store)—and coming from a town that didn’t even have a record store, she found this act of defiance didn’t serve to help her blend in any.
So when she was 15 she decided she wanted to be a drag queen.
“As I got older, I was surrounded by all these examples of how I wanted to be, and they all happened to be men.”
“Anything worth doing is on the fringe.”
At 18 she moved to San Francisco, doing drag shows at night and living androgenously during the day---complete with men’s deodorant, underwear and cologne--because she didn’t identify or feel comfortable being a woman…
“…and because being a woman didn’t serve me. I became immersed in gay male culture. I feel the people that raised me were the queens. They were my mirror, my reflection of the world…which if you look in it long enough, the reflection is how you identify. I felt like a man in a woman’s body. And it’s so hard to describe to people because I’m so hyper-feminine now…”
She stops to pick up Movie Star, her pink-eared poodle who has been periodically yelping for lack of attention. “You want your wig?” She proceeds to pull Movie Star’s pink bob out of its box on the table and arrange it on the dog’s head, as it executes an oddly human modeling of the coif, slowly turning its head side to side for all to admire it.
*BOB* had created a stock of characters in her earlier teens, and the drag club scene was the perfect platform to trot out some of them:
Whoa Ho Nellie, a magical horse that came to life, with a huge mane, a bit in her mouth and a purse filled with glitter & oatmeal; Rag-a-Bob, donning a corset, Victorian petticoat, and a skullcap to which she had attached a head full of licorice candy laces piled into a updo—and in performance art fashion, entrants to the VIP room she held sway over would each take a bite, with the size of the crowd growing inversely proportionate to the shortening of her wig; and “Bob”-arella, complete with bullet bra and space gun.
“But I was really undercover, which means I spoke the queen’s lingo. So verbally, I was able to not be clocked at all. And nobody could spook my beard, so to speak.” She’d made a checklist of all she needed to cover to add to the ambiguity: delicate hands, with gloves; her throat, to hide the absence of an Adam’s apple; her skin, with Dermablend to hide a dewy complexion; her hips with full skirts, and 6-in platforms to rise above suspicion.
“If we just stuck to what we were given, it would be pretty boring”
After almost 3 years on the San Francisco scene she came to NYC to retool her image. She found, over time, a difference between the queen scenes on both coasts: on the west, there was an emphasis on camp; in the east, a greater appreciation for glamour and ultra-over-the-top femininity.
And that esthetic is what *BOB* has cultivated as a performance artist---and burlesque dancer, using its tools of artifice: wigs, make-up, boas, sequins & glitter. She appreciates burlesque as a genre that celebrates women. That discomfort as a younger woman she felt in her own female body has become a fierce display of her own femaleness. In a popular act, she prepares a shaken martini with the assist of her two mammaries, garnishing it with an olive extracted from her nether regions. In another, she dances to music created around the “negative track” of criticisms and name-calling regarding body image that used to run through her mind, effectively bringing it into the open and taking its power away. In addition to her monthly dancers’ debut event, she teaches Burlesque Glamour & Make-up, and a popular Confidence Workshop at the Jo Weldon’s New York School of Burlesque. If anyone is qualified to teach both, it is World Famous *BOB*.
“The ultimate feminist is someone who is completely confident & in charge of what they’re doing, and their sexuality--which for me, includes wigs and glitter, pasties and public nudity. It’s gone from burn your bra to sequin your bra. I feel more comfortable wearing one, anyway.”
Lady Aye is a bodacious dish in full control of her gag reflex. Rather, all three of them; in her act, she indicates the areas by slicing a stainless steel sword across her throat, chest and diaphragm before opening wide and swallowing it to the hilt.
She admits that, for many, watching her access her entrails is a visceral experience. But gripping an audience is how she defines showmanship. To that end, she also drives nails up her nose, lies on a bed of the 10-in. variety in the shape of a corset, walks on broken beer bottles and eats fire. “This is not a passive form of theatre—it’s an engaging one. ‘Turning the Tip’ was a vaudevillian expression that meant pulling people in, building up the tension, the anticipation. That’s the skill.”
It is also the allure of the variety arts, of vaudeville and of Burlesque, which are becoming more popular as audiences dig more interaction in their entertainment. By virtue of their artisan origins, these arts share that esthetic—which is why they also frequently share the stage. They have also made sideshow entertainment—and its tendency to test sensibilities -- the main factor in Coney Island’s reclaiming a reputation worthy of its hipster-days moniker: “Sodom by the Sea.” It is a distinction that developers, in their mad dash for cash, currently are threatening to crumble like its biblical namesake.
As we waited for her photo session, Lady Aye reveals how she fell in love with the carny tradition watching a Penn & Teller show at age twelve (she laments that there are “no county fairs in Manhattan”). She has been swallowing swords for about a year, a skill that she says took some time to develop.
“It took four months to get it down all the way. I started with a toothbrush, then a corset stay, then a spoon, and eventually a sword.”
Along the way are those that inspired her in the sideshow tradition. She counts among them Vince Hall and C.M. Christ, out of Gibsonton, Florida. “Gibtown, as they call it, the carny capital of the world.” Out of Coney Island, there were Todd Robbins, Heather Holiday, Tyler Fyre and Diamond Donnie V., performers that impart a traditional elegance to a seemingly indelicate style of entertainment.
Aye also revealed her soft-spot for vintage culture and retro dress-up. As our conversation spilled from old-school fashion into feminism and comedy, Lady Aye somehow found a way to address the dichotomy of the ‘good old days,’ when post-war prosperity and killer fashions co-existed with good old female repression.
“I always loved the fashions of the 50’s,” she says. “They were more curvy, which I find more flattering. After the depression and war, fashion became indulgent: full skirts with lots of fabric; a corseted dress with an atomic bullet bra bodice … it was Victorian values, but interpreted in a modern way.”
One could make a similar observation about burlesque—a traditional art form, filtered through modern values. A good many women in the arts have returned to the recalcitrance of pre-war, pre-movie code days, when subversion and challenging the status quo through performance made it in some ways a more liberating time for women. As far back as before the turn of the century, artists like Lydia Thompson were producing writing and performing in burlesque shows that poked fun at social mores in costumes that, while considered tame today, were risqué at the time.
And in an age when a wardrobe malfunction can derail a pop star’s career, make a network hiccup, and offend the puritanical sensibilities of an audience seemingly desensitized to commercials popping with bikini-clad beer babes and sexual innuendo, we can probably do with an adjustment of just where a woman’s body fits into all of this.
But I digress. Lady’s feminist awareness came when, after graduating Columbia with a degree in American Film History, she realized while trying her hand at screenwriting that the industry wasn’t interested in films about women, written by women. “It was around the time of ‘Swingers’, a film about guys being guys”-- written by guys. She did some PA work for Todd Hayne’s indie film, Poison, then fell into promoting.
She hosted the running rockabilly party “Big City After Dark,” that gave vent to her childhood love of sideshow and vaudeville. She combined variety acts, fortune tellers, comedy and burlesque, met fire-eater Tyler Fyre and burlesque dancer Nasty Canasta and found as she continued to book acts that “these burlesque people were really having a lot of fun. But what pushed me over the edge into the genre was when my friend’s mom died of breast cancer.” Although she is not a burlesque dancer herself, she and her friend promoted the event, “Burlesque Against Breast Cancer,” raised money for the cause—then found they had difficulty finding charities that would take the money. “It was like, 'We don’t mind fighting breast cancer; we just don’t want to see breasts.’”
She was looking for a creative outlet, and found it in “Bump & Grindhouse,” an ongoing show that she started with burlesque dancer Clams Casino that pays homage to the pulp novels and soft-porn exploitation flicks of the 50’s & 60’s. The kitch/comic factor is high.
“Burlesque is pertinent. It can be funny and sexy. It’s difficult in mainstream entertainment for women to combine beauty & comedy.” Wit signifies intelligence, which implies a brain along with a body.
She says, “The combination can be very threatening to some.”
That observation led to a issue that gets hashed out periodically in the burlesque community: the difference between burlesque and modern strip-club stripping. While both, in essence, are defined by a woman taking off her clothes, there are nuances that reinforce the divide.
Foremost is probably neo-burlesque’s playful, nostalgic ode to a traditional performance art that emphasized the “tease” above all else. It was never a full strip; it was a tantalizing act that left more to the imagination.
“I see it as the difference between McDonalds and fine dining—food you just want to gobble down, and food you want to savor,” she observes.
There is also economic consideration: for strip-club dancers, it is a means to make a living; burlesque artists, on the other hand, do not get rich. Most do it for the love of the craft. In fact, after doling out for opulent costumes and props, many artists find themselves in the hole to support their habit.
But she adds that making the distinction is still buying into a cultural mindset that “demonizes women for taking their clothes off” (even if those making the lion’s share of profits--the owners and promoters of today’s mainstream stripping establishments--are men.) One will find, though, that burlesque shows are created and produced primarily (and attended slight more) by women, so the emphasis is on the creative, playful aspect, rather than on “getting anyone off.”
Some dancers see no difference in the genres: Dita Von Teese, the most commercially successful of today’s burlesque movement, started as a pin-up & fetish model, and feels stripping is stripping, no matter what one calls it. Dita’s influence on the neo-burlesque scene is undeniable, not only with raising its profile but also its glamour factor, with sumptuous costuming and props and an entrepreneurial approach that has led to fashion and cosmetic endorsements. For all her attributes, a few burlesque legends have made the observation that, in performance Dita lacks that very element that distinguishes burlesque: connection with the audience. Tempest Storm noted, “It’s not only in the body, it’s in the eyes, the face. Dita’s a beautiful woman and has a gorgeous wardrobe, but no personality onstage. It’s like a singer—you can have the greatest voice, but the audience wants to feel where it’s coming from.”
That personal energy is perhaps what is so empowering to women, in a performance art that addresses the rather restricting definition of female beauty that prevails. Mainstream media tells women exactly what they should look like; burlesque deconstructs that standard. Every woman has a sensual exquisiteness, and burlesque gives it emphasis: a persuasive enough reason to be inspired by it.
“There are very few areas in life where you get to decide who you are and tell the world that,” says Lady Aye.
Quite a few years ago, a very famous emperor with very short legs and an overblown estimation of himself lost a great battle and was banished to an island to live out the remainder of his days in comfortable shame. Or was it shameful comfort. Regardless, to him it was a fate worse than death, so with the help of his loyal attendants, beneath the radar of the British soldiers patrolling the island, he hatched a plan to escape the place and find his way back to the capital city of his adopted home, with visions of loyal subjects waving olive branches on bended knee. They found a crewman, with seventeen years of service on one of the emperor’s former ships, that just happened to be the spitting image of him; and so, under cloak of night, the two traded clothes and places. The sailor would impersonate him until such time as the emperor felt it safe to reveal himself; at which time the man would also reveal his true identity, with the expectation of the emperor’s undying material gratitude. So, with the ID of a common man in his pocket, and the promise of loyal accomplices along the way to guide him safely, the now-fugitive emperor set off to reclaim his destiny.
The journey was fraught with setbacks and bugaboos, which began to test his humility and cause cracks in the battle-forged armor of his temperament. Meanwhile, his “twin”, growing quite comfortable with the sumptuousness and amenities of his new home, decided that seventeen years of hard labor deserved more payback than he had originally agreed to. So, in an oddly OJ Simpson type of way, he began to believe his own story of deception. He was, to his captors, the emperor. His “attendants”, under the watchful eye of the British soldiers were, of course, powerless to deny it. As his excesses grew, he became a grotesque picture of Dorian Gray, mirroring and magnifying the ugly realities of the real emperor as he had once existed, without a soul.
The real emperor, however, was beginning now to grow a soul. An old comrade, with whom he was to meet and accompany into Paris, missed their appointment, leaving the emperor to find him—laid out in his Sunday best, inside a pine box in the middle of his parlor. His former friend’s young wife, plagued by creditors and a failing fruit-selling business, grudgingly offered him temporary lodging, which was all it took for him to ingratiate himself. He used his tactical skills to plan an all-out fruit-vending assault on the surrounding towns, turning her operations profitable in one day, and her attention on the future. It wasn’t long before his strength and her sensitivity found comfort in each other, and grew into love.
This collaboration did not sit well with the neighborhood doctor, who had been a friend of the deceased and hopeful suitor to his widow. He had been waiting for a suitable amount of grieving time to pass before he made his move, and was now being intercepted by an old man with a bossy disposition. At the same time, he thought he recognized the emperor, but was not certain from where. He became both jealous and suspicious.
Soon, our hero’s impatience for glory began to nag him. He spent hours strategizing, reworking plans for resuming power, and increasingly alienating the woman who had opened his rusty heart. Little did he know at the time that all his efforts would be for naught, as his double on the island, with his daily indulgences, had dropped dead of a heart attack.
Back at the ranch, the discord that the real emperor’s behavior had engendered in his budding relationship was not lost on the doctor. But his regard for the widow was so great that when he made known his feelings, and found they were unrequited, he set about redirecting the emperor’s attention on what was truly important: the love of a good woman. After a painful chance meeting with him in a tavern, where he satisfied himself that his rival was the genuine article, he led him through the woods to a mysterious estate, where he left him to witness a frightening picture: dozens of men, dressed in variations on the emperor himself, milling about, mumbling nonsense to themselves, caught in their own delusions of grandeur. He had been led onto the grounds of an insane asylum. All at once, our hero realized the futility of trying to convince anyone of past glories, and the shallowness of recapturing an image. He could now appreciate the happiness he was fortunate to have found, and returned home as the man his woman had fallen in love with.
The walk south from downtown Memphis to the National Civil Rights Museum, even on a bright summer day, is an eerie one. From historic Beale Street, home of the blues and Memphis’ own Vegas strip, packed with music clubs, bars, souvenir shops and, at night, a blinding neon glow—the journey is only a few blocks; yet the transition in landscape is stark, as commerce & activity give way to abandoned buildings, vacant lots and what feels like an almost psychic handprint of death left on the area from a cataclysmic event almost forty years old.
As one approaches the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4th, 1968 and which, refurbished, now houses the museum, one understands why. The front facade of the motel remains intact, with two circa 60’s cars parked outside, just underneath the second-floor porch where King was hit. Across the street is the Main Street Rooming House where James Earl Ray took aim with his shotgun. It is impossible, in this setting frozen in time, not to be transported back to that instant when the hopeful momentum of the modern civil rights movement was struck at its heart. In the few blocks surrounding the motel, one finds an area that has never fully recovered.
“I knew Walter. I grew up as a kid here.” Girl Lee Thomas reminisces about Walter Shipley, the original owner of the Lorraine, on this day of her first visit to the museum. She had been too young to remember the shooting, but she does remember as the motel fell into disrepair, and ultimately into foreclosure.
“He named it after his wife Lorraine. I never met her. She died of a brain hemorrhage a few hours after Dr. King was shot. “ She points to the two rooms directly above the 2 cars. “Walter kept these 2 rooms in remembrance, Dr. King’s and one for his wife.”
Opened in 1991, the museum came about through the efforts of a memorial foundation started in King’s name by a group of concerned Memphians, who had watched as the historically significant site deteriorated in the years following his death. After securing the property in public auction the foundation received donations from businesses, unions and the City of Memphis itself, and broke ground in Sept 1987.
A tour of the exhibits winds its way through the gutted expanse of the former motel, as a visitor follows along on headphones. Starting in 1619 with the slave trade, the exhibit begins by detailing the African-American struggle, in its various forms, against servitude: escape, sabotage, feigning illness while being bought & sold on the auction block, violence, and later, using the press, the courts, and petitioning politicians.
Dred Scott’s attempt to win freedom in the courts failed when his contention that he had become a free man while travelling to Illinois & Minnesota, northern states, was struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court, which countered that he became a slave again upon returning to Missouri. The US Supreme Court upheld that ruling, adding that the Declaration of Independence & the Constitution did not pertain to African-Americans.
Harriet Tubman, taking a different tack, toted a gun as she led hundreds of slaves to the North via the Underground Railroad, threatening to shoot any evacuee whose resolve waned mid-trip and compromised the others’ safety.
These and other activities, along with the moral high ground adopted by the North to obscure their own economic interests in the Civil War, brought about constitutional amendments as Congress sought to “reconstruct” the South. The 13th, 14th & 15th amendments, respectively, prohibited slavery, gave full rights of citizenship to anyone born in the US, and granted voting rights to any male regardless of color. Their enactment set the stage for legal recognition of African-Americans’ rights (for males, anyway) while at the same time inciting resentment among many Southern whites.
In protest, the South established the Jim Crow laws, regional practices of discrimination that defied the Federal laws and further entrenched disparity between the races. In this climate, blacks were denied education, became victims of lynchings and found their tormentor in the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski,TN in 1866. The struggle of the century to follow focused on asserting rights granted by the US government, while challenging the social conventions that prevented true equality.
One continues in the museum beyond this historical timeline into the first of a snaking series of rooms, which make up the greater part of the building. This area is devoted to the modern civil rights movement, generally considered to have begun with the landmark case Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in May of 1954. This Supreme Court ruling overturned the 1896 case of Plessy vs. Ferguson which had granted “separate but equal” public facilities--that by virtue of the social climate made them inherently unequal.
This modern movement occurred in the era of television, and was still recent enough to be in the memories of those involved; the individual exhibits, therefore, include video footage and artifacts of the day, making the impact more arresting. The faces of hate in an angry mob trying to prevent a little girl from going to school says more, in an instant, about visceral human nature than a history book could convey.
Nearby is a lunch counter that, at first glance, could be mistaken for a museum snack bar, complete with salt, ketchup, fixtures, etc. Life-size gray figures sit at the stools as similar figures stand over them menacingly. Footage used to train protesters & prepare them for the indignities to come rolls on the wall behind them. The scene is so authentic, that from one’s peripheral vision one can feel the confrontational energy of the student sit-ins that began in 1960 at the Greensboro, NC Woolworth’s store. These sit-ins, repeated elsewhere by other students, went far in helping to integrate public facilities throughout the South. The four original protesters were served six months later at the same Woolworth’s counter that had previously refused them.
The space nearby is dominated by a burnt-out bus, much like the one that left Washington DC for New Orleans in May 1960. The bus had been packed with “Freedom Riders” intent on exposing illegal segregation on public transportation. Their vehicle was set on fire by an angry mob in Anniston, Alabama. The scorched and melted interior & exterior prompts one to contemplate the depth of aggression that would threaten human life in such a way. Like many of the exhibits, this one exemplifies hate in one of its cruder forms.
Just beyond is an original Montgomery, Alabama bus, like the one on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of the “colored” section. A sign invites one to step on and take a seat. If one dares to sit near the front, a voice comes from the direction of the driver—a gray, faceless figure in a driver’s uniform—and demands one to move towards the back. It becomes increasingly hostile if the warning is not heeded, until finally it threatens arrest by the local police. Ms. Park’s arrest in Dec of 1955 prompted a bus boycott by the local black community that lasted a year and ended ultimately in desegregating the bus system. As head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, Martin Luther King Jr. helped spearhead this boycott.
King figures more & more prominently as the tour progresses. A young minister from Atlanta who arrived in Montgomery to accept a church position, he quickly assumed leadership of the boycott, and a month later, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became its president. Its mandate was to confront discrimination with civil disobedience & non-violence, a practice that had already been challenged when the minister’s home was bombed during the boycott.
Throughout the next dozen years, King set an example by meeting aggression with behavior that was, in his words, “on the high plane of dignity and discipline”. An actual cellblock sets the stage for the audio presentation of his recollections, “Notes from A Birmingham Jail.” Video of the 1963 March on Washington replays his speech, “I Have A Dream” in front of a crowd of 210,000 at the Lincoln Memorial. Photographs and words paint a picture of a man tireless in his efforts to bring his race justice in the face of intensely violent resistance, while trying to quell the growing militant factions impatient for change.
His decision to come to Memphis that fateful April in 1968 was not only to lend support to local African American Sanitation Workers’ Union seeking equal pay and treatment by the city. The Mayor had declared the strike illegal, and tension was reaching a boiling point as daily protests and riots whipped the city into a lather. King felt the principle of non-violence was being threatened, and the SCLC thought his presence might ease the frustration, and prevent angry splinter factions bent on confrontation from taking over the tone of the movement.
The exhibit ends at the two rooms overlooking Mulberry Street. Across the way one can see the window where James Earl Ray stood. In King’s room, from behind glass, one can see the table littered with half-filled coffee cups, cigarette butts snubbed out in saucers, some chairs and a disarranged bed that seems to have served as more seating for King’s associates. One can place figures in that room, strategizing, joking, showing frustration, feeling impatience. It does not appear that there was much resting done in that room. And forty years later, that energy seems to be caught in a warp that keeps it vibrating—and continues to teach us something about ourselves.
In the best of circumstances, moving into a new apartment can make a single girl feel like Holly Golightly. Setting up and decorating her abode becomes an adventure of limitless possibilities. Even the most extravagant gourmet shop in the neighborhood begs patronizing. Every stranger on the street is destined to be a future party guest. And every encounter is an opportunity to kill someone with kindness. However jaded she is with life in the big city, a new pad makes her feel like she's playing grown-up; and the lucky guys who treat her nicely may even get to see it. After all, a girl needs a heroic male to hang the bookshelves that leave more space on the floor for the antique vanity that completes the French 'boudoir' look in the room she plans to invite him into.
And in a city where rear-window spying & front-window voyeurism would serve as a substitute for Must-See television, she must assure her privacy with drapes, and enlist another male to guarantee they are well-hung.