Phil Cramer, co-founder of the New Orleans experimental theater ensemble NEW NOISE, grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, but as a kid, he didn't think of his upbringing as being “distinctly southern.”
“I had your general American suburban childhood,” says Cramer. “It was the mall, and it was the alternative rock radio station.”
As he got older, however, Cramer started cultivating an interest in southern culture, and he was surprised to realize he had been surrounded by it all along. Since then, Cramer has become more and more interested in the idea of rediscovering the cultural heritage of an increasingly modernized south, trying to hold on to the things that are beautiful and important, and trying to come to terms with the things that are ugly and shameful. Trying, in essence, to understand what it means to be southern in the 21st century.
“It started to fascinate me,” says Cramer. “What are the things that we decided to leave behind in order to move beyond our agrarian past? Certainly, so many of the things that we had to give up, it’s a damn good thing that we did. But I think it’s also easy to look at some of these cultural items--whether it’s music, or dances, or any of the things that you might define under traditional folkways--and feel a sense a loss.”
These are the ideas that Cramer and his NEW NOISE collaborators wrestle with in their newest work, Oxblood, the second installment of their New Southern Hymnal trilogy.
Oxblood is the story of Laurel and Rose (Kylie Arceneaux and Bonnie Gabel), two sisters raised in rural Georgia who reunite amidst the charred ruins of their recently destroyed old family home. When Rose returns to the place that Laurel never left, she and her husband Jacob (Cramer) become enchanted by the prospect of giving up their life in suburban Memphis and returning to the land, reclaiming their cultural inheritance.
In Oxblood, the two sisters must grapple with the decision of whether or not to sell their land now that the house is gone. Each character is trying to make sense of themselves in this place that holds their rich family history of farming, even though none of them knows what it means to work on the land. They ponder what will become of the land if it's sold, and also what it means to let go of--or hold on to--a place that is imbued with a violent history.
“Looking at the land and our relationship with the land, one thing we had to reckon with fairly immediately was that our relationship to land in the south is inherently poisoned,” says Cramer. “It’s built on this horrific foundation of slavery, and then after that, sharecropping. It’s built on an entire exploitative system.”
Cramer founded NEW NOISE in 2008 with Joanna Russo, the director of Oxblood. Cramer says their earliest shows explored issues of place and identity, but it wasn’t until last year’s Runnin’ Down the Mountain, the first installment of the New Southern Hymnal trilogy, that the group began specifically addressing themes of Southern-ness. Runnin’ was conceived as a “sound play,” using live music and recorded soundscapes to bolster the story of two siblings who remember their mother only through an old cassette tape that captured snippets of her singing.
Just as Runnin’ explored the use of sound in narrative, for Oxblood, the company wanted to experiment with movement. They brought in choreographer Angelle Hebert, co-Artistic Director of the contemporary dance company tEEth, as a collaborator, along with New Orleans composer Brendan Connelly, who combined the movement and dance with original choral arrangements
“We were thinking of Oxblood as dealing with the relationship to land and to labor, which are kind of inextricably connected,” says Cramer. “We were trying to find an artistic modality to explore a physical relationship, and dance is a way to explore that in a non-traditional way, to take that physical relationship and find the poetry of it.”
The text of the show was written by Cramer and NEW NOISE member Bear Hebert, a visual artist and costume designer who believes strongly in a collaborative, ensemble approach to theater.
“There’s a real belief—at least in this company, and the companies that we are surrounded with in New Orleans—that our collective genius is greater than any of our individual capacities,” says Hebert.
Hebert says that the text and choreography were created mostly separately, then integrated and revised as the pieces began to fall into place. She recalls one scene that, after seeing it choreographed, she was compelled to rewrite in order to better fit the vision of the choreography.
“I didn’t really know what I was writing for when I was writing, and then the movement seemed so right that the text just had to adapt,” says Hebert. The experience was valuable, she adds, not just for the text that made into the show, but also for the text that got cut. “It’s not lost. It still adds layers of understanding and richness in terms of how we, the makers of the piece, understand the piece.”
A native of Lafayette, Louisiana, Hebert says that she and Cramer have a similar approach to issues of southern identity, and their understanding of the issues in Oxblood come from the same place.
“We’re both proud to be southern, and also we grapple a lot with the complexities of being from a place that has such a terrible, brutal history,” says Hebert. “I think that is what’s at the crux of Oxblood, this idea of how do you make sense of your own identity and your own past, and at the same time, how do you hold space for a real spiritual connection to a piece of land or to a cultural identity?”
Because the characters’ relationship to the land is central to the story of Oxblood, Hebert says the group wanted to avoid performing this piece about farmland and labor inside a theater. That’s why they moved outdoors, to the Grow Dat Youth Farm in New Orleans City Park. The farm works with high school students in New Orleans, teaching leadership and life skills through growing, cooking, and selling organic fruits and vegetables. Some members of the Oxblood cast and crew spent the summer volunteering at the farm, not just to support a good cause, but to experience the labor and the land that is at the heart of the show.
The action of Oxblood is nestled in a clearing between the roar of Interstate 610 and the Friday night football games at nearby Pan American Stadium, just beyond meticulously maintained gardens, neat piles of compost, and an orderly line of fruit trees. There, theatergoers encounter the burnt remains of Rose and Laurel’s old family home, and Jacob emerges from the surrounding woods with a shovel in hand, hacking at the dirt as the show begins.
“The space really takes you out of the urban mindset,” says Hebert. “I think that’s the hope, that when people are sitting in the audience, they can look out and imagine that they’re someplace else.”
Oxblood runs through October 26, with encore performances scheduled for November 22 and 23 as part of the 2014 New Orleans Fringe Festival. The show takes place at Grow Dat Youth Farm, 150 Zachary Taylor Drive, at New Orleans City Park. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit the NEW NOISE website.