The antebellum South wasn’t necessarily a simpler, easier time for anyone, especially if your family weren’t wealthy plantation owners. Yet a far off, fairytale vision of a placid era before the abolition of slavery drove inspired generational anger in the hearts of millions of men after the failed secession from the United States. Archetypes created in that time persist in our memory today, and the early tinkerings with the machinery of celebrity have since resulted in the roaring engines that crash through our lives today. Antebellum, an experimental, interdisciplinary show based on three personalities from the period, comes to the Fringe Festival this year to explore these concepts and turn them into an experience.
Leah Loftin, a member of the Gogol Annex performing group and one of the co-creators of the piece has an insatiable affection for history and its lost details. Part of the inspiration for Antebellum was drawing on an era that is more often utilized by more straightforward period pieces and bringing it into the experimental realm that Gogol Annex thrives in.
Originally from Crosby, TX, Loftin lived in New Orleans for many years, and read the influential history book The French Quarter by Herbert Asbury and was amazed to discover that, “Literally hundreds of years New Orleans has been this center of sin and depravity and all this environmental calamity.”
The successes of American culture (the mass-produced newspaper, photography, telegraphs) and its uneasy cultural shifts (the speed with which wealth began to accumulate or dissipate, urban anonymity) combined to create an era in which, possibly, the personal became the political. War was never a foregone conclusion, but the state of things certainly greased the wheels. Loftin suggested there might even be a nationwide, unconscious expectation of the conflict. “There’s a huge surge in gambling and vice and prostitution,” she said, “and then the bubble sort of bursts when the war comes and the cannons start firing.”
Before the crash, business was definitely booming. Antebellum focuses on three characters who are each at the height of their professions. They are based on actual people but have been distilled into personas. There is the Nightingale, a celebrated opera soprano, the Colonel, a riverboat gambling rogue, and Bricktop, a prostitute with cruel survival skills.
Loftin said, “We’re really influenced by the Russian writer [Nikolai] Gogol, and he has this wonderful way of approaching his characters where it’s this humourous grotesque hyperbole.” So when the group worked on this piece, they decided to take a look back at history, but “turn the volume way up.”
The history at hand, at normal volume, is singer Jenny Lind’s tour of America sponsored by P.T. Barnum. Barnum rolled out an extensive marketing machine, essentially buying favorable reviews ahead of him wherever he went that praised Lind--who has been described as talented, but not warranting quite such a frenzy--for her virtue and piety.
Lind stayed in New Orleans for an extended series of concerts, drawing crowds from the entire region. With the crowds came the hawkers of Lind-inspired merchandise. “This famous opera singer descends upon New Orleans and [attracts] all these members of the underworld, and it’s a very, very packed city and everything is very heightened and frenzied.”
The performers decided that the height of public celebrity represented by the Nightingale could be mirrored by the Colonel and Bricktop. “Within their own spheres, they were celebrities,” Loftin said. “Bricktop was this notorious muderess and she really loved her own legend.”
After coming up with their characters, each performer undertook their own research, delving into memoirs, history books, and essays. Part of the process involved understanding “the Southern archetypes versus the southern stereotypes,” said Loftin. Each member shared their information with the others so that when it came time to improvise in rehearsals, they could offer suggestions.
The performance was shaped collectively: each character has their own ‘pod’ or area of influence and there is no straight narrative. The show is held together by a unique soundscape designed by composer Nathan Halpern, which flows behind the rhythmic words of the performers and their strong physicality.
“It’s a mix of a contemporary soundscape, but he’s woven in deconstructed elements that you would hear in the daily life of the antebellum era that reference each of the characters,” Loftin said. One special element is the distorted, eerie segment of a man singing the French folk song “Au Clair de la Lune.” It comes from a photoautograph from 1860 and is widely believed to be the earliest known recording of a human voice.
The span of time between that transcription of sound waves onto a cylinder coated with lampblack and today, when a performance group with members in both New York City and Toronto can rehearse and plan in real time via Skype seems immense, but it underscores the enduring nature of these Southern archetypes.
In Antebellum, “there’s this idea of the first recorded sound changing the notion of immortality,” Loftin said. “Recorded performance [eventually] moves to the speed of light which is where we are now where everything’s digitized and where if you go to a live concert you don’t even watch the performer, you watch the jumbotron.”
Still, the reason we attend live performances is because of their theatricality, the access they provide to dedicated talent, and their unpredictability. The members of Gogol Annex have prepared for months, but still don’t know exactly how they will stage Antebellum until they parse out the space inside the Mardi Gras Zone for themselves. Flexibility and adaptability are necessary skills for any group curated into Fringe.
Loftin knows that the situation will create performance unique to its own time and place.
“That’s what’s so magical, especially for something that’s experimental, because when you put it up, a whole different entity takes over and there’s things you may not have anticipated,” she said. “We know all of our musical numbers and our choreography and our monologues, but I think there’s something magical that happens with our soundscape and the visual of these installations because we can’t even anticipate how it’s going to come off in totality.”
Only time will tell.
Antebellum has four performances at the Mardi Gras Zone. Click here for showtimes and tickets.
Go to our dedicated New Orleans Fringe Festival page for more feature previews and reviews all week.