By: Tevyn East, Jay Beck, and Tim Nafziger
In one way or another, all of us working for social change seek to turn the world upside down and topsy turvy. It’s a vision that goes all the way back to Mary’s Magnificat. What would happen if we actually sought to incarnate that vision of our world turned on its head?
Imagine a band of holy fools: living between worlds, threading church into Big Top dream and big band protest. They are creating space to deviate from the norm, to shape-shift through characters, to re-approach the old sacred stories from the groan of creation to a radical reclamation of the earthy truth within the Gospel narratives. They are topsy-turvy tight-rope walkers entwined between the worlds of faith, art and activism, dream-makers jesting on a grand scale. Their cross-cultural and mixed-media inspiration surges at the intersection of ancient and contemporary, of flesh and spirit, resounding in mythopoetic, syncretistic, voices of the sacred. They weave the elements, let the symbols speak, and call all to dance with the drum.
This is the experiment we call the Carnival de Resistance.
The Carnival’s first full expression was in the fall of 2013, through two consecutive 10 day residencies on church lawns in Harrisonburg and Charlottesville, Virginia. The following year we curated round the clock programming at our own venue with the Wildgoose Festival in Hot Springs, NC. Earlier this year we had a boisterous presence at the Festival of Radical Discipleship in the Ventura River watershed in southern California. Follow the links above to see photos, stories and videos from each presence.
The Carnival is coming to Charlotte, North Carolina for a weekend of performances, September 18 to 20. The carnival crew will convene to offer performances, creative play, worship and engagement with local efforts for justice, health and sustainability. We are a motley crew of freaks and fools, artists and activists. Some of us are seasoned nomads, others experienced performers, others untested seekers thirsty for something new as we seek to embody the Carnival spirit.
When you pass through our scrappy wooden threshold into the Carnival, you enter a world spinning with energy. Side-show tents, storytellers and roving performers encircle a broken clocktower. Small crowds gather around a dozen midway games while children dart through the space chasing costumed jesters. The air is full of motion and flashes of color tug at the periphery of your vision. You look up with a start to see a large boar-like creature is looming above you on stilts.
Thus begins the Carnival Midway experience. When they have had their fill guests are invited into the Big Top for our main attraction, the Carnival de Resistance Ceremonial Theater. Under the big top, we listen to the voices of the Four Elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire as they journey along a path that moves from thanksgiving and remembering to lament and mystery, and culminates in a communally embodied ritual. These productions stitch together liturgical variety acts, midrash theater, circus arts and a live drum and dance party.
“Out of the Whirlwind,” our air show, centers around a conversation between loud-mouthed “Raven” and mute “Dove.” These two birds remember the last time the world was destroyed, the Flood, and their portentous roles on the Ark. They recount old stories in which Raven fed Elijah in the wilderness, and Dove descended on Jesus at baptism and they argue over the appropriate response to humanity’s destructive ways.
“Wade Through Deep Water” introduces two prophets, Miriam and John the Baptist, whose water-logged lives kept them swimming in transformation. Miriam’s drumming and bodysong speak to the dangers of privatizing water, of desertification, and of ignoring the voice of the divine feminine. Meanwhile, John the Baptist calls all to a “dirty baptism” because we have poisoned the wells and dammed the water. The show culminates in a water anointing for every audience member, and a communal dance to “Gidamba,” a traditional West African rhythm played for baptisms.
“Blood on the Cedars,” our earth show, brings the call of the wild alive in ancient and contemporary stories of resistance. The show weaves together litanies that paint a picture of prophets connected to the earth, of myriad cultural expressions of the sacredness of trees, and of modern activists and resisters who are suffering and dying for the sake of the world's forests. It’s biblical prophets railed against deforestation, indicting Solomon’s temple-building as ecological injustice.
“Clothed with the Sun,” our fire show features the voice of "the fire that burns in the bones of the prophet" (Jeremiah 20). A fearsome talking skull wields a flaming wand and groans warnings of rage and doom to an already burning planet. Hope is brought from the beautiful pregnant sunflower Woman Clothed in the Sun with twelve stars on her head (Revelation 12). She is hailed and dances with mystical triumph with the spirit of the Phoenix, encircled by fire dancers, fire-eaters, and fire-breathers.
Beyond the midway and big top is the demonstration village, where the crew lives together during the residency. Life as usual is interrupted with a communal effort to live another way. In the Carnival de Resistance, most of us are encountering new practices: cycling long distances, collecting firewood, carrying water, stoking the cooking fire, making meals for a large community, or dumpster diving.
Our village life is so much work, but, oh, such a satisfying life. We call it our Holy Game. Most of us will return to “normal lives.” Many find that a real change has taken place. All that surrounds us and claims to be necessary in some way loses some of its power within our topsy turvy game. Maybe normal life is a game, too. Now which game is more holy? Which one is closer to God’s dream?
Inspired by the Word and World schools, we are not merely a traveling show; we create spaces for education and outreach in the communities that host us. During the weekdays of our residencies in Harrisonburg and Charlottesville we offered in-house events like the Potlatch (a Native American gift-giving ceremony), and sent our crew out into dozens of local engagements, plugging in with allies to uplift their existing programs. We offered creative workshops in mask making, drumming, storytelling, and song-writing for the young and the old. At Eastern Mennonite University we taught classes, led chapels, and painted a mural in which dozens of students participated. In the wider community, we joined open mics, bible studies, garden work parties and worship services.
In Harrisonburg we converged for a community parade and public witness that launched from New Community Project, one of our local allies and an exceptionally inspirational model for faithful resistance. We pulled out our signs, sunflowers, crazy bike sculptures, costumes, and, most importantly, drums. We sang and shouted “Power Down, Lift Up”—lifting up the mountains, the rivers, the people, the story—in a colorful parade that circled downtown and landed on the stoop of City Hall for a radiant public witness. We pedal-powered our bicycle sound system, handing the mic to local agents of change focusing on immigrant rights, mountain conservation, local food systems and alternative energy.
Carnival is historically communal, participatory and celebrational. Drawing upon this energy, we invite people to bring their bodies into political action. This energy is vital, because for many people the word “politics” evokes a somber world of talking heads, where stuffy debates are held in sterile environments far removed from the people and lands with which politicians are meddling. Even protest politics runs the risk of falling into formulaic, disembodied, and legalistic patterns. The Carnival comes in through a different door completely and then asks why we are all sitting around inside on such a beautiful day.
Step right up! Let us take our bodies out into the street, the garden, the tent, the river, the landscape. Feast your eyes on these unforgettable wonders! Let us live church outside the pews, gathering courage and conviction and sowing seeds of hope and resistance along the way.
We hope you can join us in Charlotte in September! In the autumn of 2016 we are planning two 10 day residencies as we did in Charlottesville and Harrisonburg. These locations will be announced later this year.
Tevyn East seeks to integrate her artistic gifts with the journeywork of activism, responding to the needs of the world and the signs of the times. Under the banner of Holy Fool Arts, Tevyn has produced and performed a one-woman show, entitled Leaps and Bounds, which she toured and presented to over 130 communities around the country.
Jay Beck is a percussionist, vocalist, drum-maker, and educator who has been performing, teaching, touring and recording professionally for many years. He is the founder of Croatan Studio in Philadelphia which seeks to aid resistance movements and develop reconciliation through studying the artforms and spirituality of oppressed nomadic and indigenous people groups.
Tim Nafziger is a Mennonite writer, photographer and web developer who lives in the Ojai valley in California where he hikes and bikes as much as possible in search of the perfect combination of trees, mountains and light. Tim’s vocation is cross-pollination and working with small groups of people committed to social change.
The viewpoints expressed in each reader-submitted article are the authors own, and not an “official Jesus Radicals” position. For more on our editorial policies, visit our submissions page. If you want to contact an author or you have questions, suggestions, or concerns, please contact us.
Nekeisha Alayna Alexis
Liza Minno Bloom
Eda Ruhiye Uca