Storytellers, singers, and musicians from Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society (New Orleans, LA) and poet, playwright, and performer Deidre R. Gantt (Washington, DC) created a performance inspired by 2019 (the 400th year since African slavery began in America), New Orleans' indigenous and Mardi Gras Indian culture, and the experience of being American in different parts of the African diaspora.
Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society (New Orleans, LA) is a community-based cultural arts society rooted in West African retentive cultural expressions. The membership is comprised primarily of Harrison Family and a few close friends who are granted membership on a case-by-case basis. Five generations of the family have been participants the uniquely New Orleans Mardi Gras/Carnival narrative creative art expression tradition, which includes original ceremonial dress art, community theater, ritual dance and procession, call-and-response chants, and polyrhythmic percussive rhythms. Everything has a meaning!
The precise origin of the tradition is not known with 100 percent certainty. The late, Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., founder of the Guardians of the Flame said it is an homage to the mutual struggle of people of African and Native American ancestry to experience freedom in America. He further elaborated: specifically, to have freedom of movement, dress, spiritual practices, culinary ways, and language expressions—in general, to have opportunities to be full-fledged citizens with economic opportunities and to live self-actualized lives.
The earliest participants in this unique tradition practiced in African-American communities throughout New Orleans, LA referred to themselves as Indians, later the name Mardi Gras Indians was imposed on them, and, recently, many have embraced Black Masking Indians. The Guardians of the Flame adopted Maroon as a way to illuminate the resistance of people to the state of being enslaved. A Maroon has historically been described as an enslaved person of African descendent who ran away from enslavers and joined or established independent, hidden settlements. Maroons utilized the area’s topography to evade capture.
Deidre Gantt, stage/pen name Deidre CreativeSoul (Capitol Heights, MD) is a poet/spoken word artist and playwright who uses literary works to explore personal and collective trauma, healing, and empowerment in the African Diaspora. Her awareness of New Orleans cultural traditions grew over a five-year period when she lived in New Orleans. During that time, she coordinated a community development program that involved culture bearers and the cultural economy, which is how she and Maroon Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson first met; Deidre also performed at spoken word events and showcases around the city.
Deidre’s awareness of the Maroons stretches back at least two decades, to the first time she watched the Brazilian movie Quilombo! She fell in love with their spirit of resistance and self-determination to be free and live independently of colonial societies so much so that upon relocating to New Orleans in 2010, she adopted the nickname, Bayou Maroon. New Orleans felt so different than the other cities and states where she had lived that moving there felt like running away from the American mainstream. She didn’t realize how loaded the nickname was until a few years later, when she learned about Juan San Malo, an 18th century Maroon who sought refuge in Louisiana’s bayous until he was captured and executed in front of the famous St. Louis Cathedral. As time passed, her knowledge of marronage expanded to include resistance movements in Jamaica, Mexico, and all over the Western hemisphere, anywhere the slave trade existed.
E Pluribus, Pluribus
Although we shared a common interest and identification with the Maroon legacy, we embarked on this collaboration carrying a diverse set of goals: to give the historical Maroons a voice and present their often hidden history, to illuminate personal and community links to the defiant Maroon spirit, and to explore what it means to call oneself a Maroon in this modern time.
We brought our unique skills as storytellers, poets, visual artists, and musicians. With our unique points of view as adults, elders, and children. A single mom with a young child. Experienced parents who had raised their own children and shared the culture with many more. Close friends and relatives with decades of familiarity. Solo artists and seasoned collaborators. Newcomers to the culture, if not the city itself. We came from New Orleans, West Africa, and the East Coast with different experiences and ways of showing up in a collaborative space, different methods, preferences, and creative comfort zones.
Cherice: The challenge for the Guardians of the Flame, as a community-rooted tradition, was how to bring our cultural expressions into traditional theater and exhibition spaces with respect and authenticity. Unfortunately, the tradition has been co-opted in far too many instances, even the most sacred elements such as the prayer song have been disrespected by outsiders for purely economic gain and celebrity. That being a reality, we were faced with an elevated consciousness of doing the “right thing” with regard any works created, especially those rooted in centuries-old protocols.
Whenever we embark on a new work, we look in our circle for like-minded artists who we can work collaboratively with and have respect for indigenous cultural expressions. Does it mean we will always agree on everything, no. What it does mean is that we will work together to make the work a success. We assembled a cadre of Guardians and longtime collaborators. The artists included musicians, song stylists, lyricists, visual artists and theater professionals.
Deidre: After our initial work together in the cultural economy program, we developed a mutual appreciation for each other as artists and people, which led to opportunities to work together in an administrative capacity. The Exchange grant represented an opportunity to expand our collaborations into the creative sphere. Most of my creative experiences have been solitary, as is the case for many writers. I have performed in showcases with others, but not as an ensemble.
We agreed to develop an experimental theatrical work inspired by the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the “20 and odd” Africans sold into bondage at Comfort Point (Jamestown), Virginia, and our mutual interest in the Maroons. The Maroon stories make me feel so proud and empowered that I understand why they haven’t been more central to Black History and enslavement lessons in school or anywhere else, for that matter. But I’m glad we had an opportunity to change that, in our way, and add to the voices of others who are telling our children and their children to remember the struggles of those who came before.
Field Research and Data Gathering
Our first step in this collaboration was to review relevant literature about the enslavement and Maroon experience including Sylviane Diouf’s Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons, Bouki Fait Gombo by Dr. Ibrahima Seck of the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, and On to New Orleans: Louisiana’s Historic 1811 Slave Revolt by Albert Thrasher. A book in the New Orleans Public Library about Bras-Coupe, a 19th century Maroon who is well known in the New Orleans area, provided valuable details about how marronage was carried out in and around New Orleans. Indigo production surfaced early as an important theme in both the East and Gulf coast experiences of enslavement, and the documentary film Blue Alchemy: Stories of Indigo became part of our research; the theme ultimately manifested in one of Queen Cherice’s narrative and in her dress art.
We also took guided tours of the Destrehan Plantation about an hour outside of New Orleans, where the 1811 uprising began, and of the Great Dismal Swamp in Suffolk, Virginia, which was the refuge of thousands of Maroons for more than a century. We briefly visited Jamestown, the site commonly associated with the arrival of the first Africans sold into captivity in the future United States (the actual site, Point Comfort, is a short distance away).
Visiting these East Coast and Gulf Coast sites of enslavement, resistance, and marronage allowed us to access the shared history from the perspective of our respective home bases; one of Cherice’s ancestors, Madison, was actually kidnapped from Virginia as a child and brought to Louisiana during the 19th century domestic slave trade. Deidre’s early vision for her persona poems written in the Maroon perspective involved a cross-country search for a stolen family member.
Spending time in the physical locations where the Maroons dwelt was also important so that we could access the spiritual energy that surrounded them; we both noted the gentle breeze and light sprinkles in Dismal Swamp where our ancestors declared their own freedom compared to the torrent that fell as soon as we arrived at the Jamestown Park Service building (it actually rained every time we saw a Jamestown sign, then stopped once we passed it).
The research and site visits provided grounding details that showed up in both our performed work as well as in the final set design, where one section of the room was decorated with Spanish moss-clad trees and stark lighting to give a feel for the remote terrain like Bayou Sauvage and the Great Dismal Swamp where American Maroons made their stand over the centuries.
We also pursued some individual research experiences. For Cherice, these included informal interviews with elders, visiting the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and reconnecting with some of the locations around New Orleans where her actual family history played out. For Deidre, this included spending time in Bayou Sauvage, a former Maroon hideout in eastern New Orleans, watching YouTube videos about Daniel Snyder’s excavations in the Dismal Swamp, and making an unexpected trek across the deep South.
Constructing the Container
As you might imagine, when we brought this enormous amount of research, personal interests, and different creative methods to the collaborative table, we were a bit scattered in our ideas and prospective approaches to weaving so many elements into a cohesive work. Initially, we intended the story circle to be a more integral part of creating the finished work, but we realized it was not as great a fit as first imagined. We conducted one circle with a small group of New Orleanian culture bearers who helped us to test out some of our early ideas about how to approach the subject.
In addition, Adella Gautier, our staging coach/dramaturge had a health setback; initially it seemed she would be unable to fulfil her role. We selected John Grimsley, an individual who could work collaboratively with her and the vision we set forth in the initial proposal to assist in bringing the production to a community staging. Bringing on a new technical director resulted in a venue change to Ashé Cultural Arts Center. It actually was a better suited venue because it facilitated art being exhibited in a manner that provided audience members opportunities to interact with the art in an up-close manner.
During one of our early planning sessions, John recommended a gallery-style installation as an experimental sort of "container" to hold the various elements of our production. Instead of a traditional theater setup with the performers and audience separated by a "fourth wall", the audience would be immersed in the box right along with us.
John had several moveable 8”x12” walls where Queen Cherice's collection of historical artifacts, ritual attire, quilting, beadwork, and portraiture could be displayed. Each wall would be constructed around a theme and/or period within the historical and contemporary, personal and collective story of enslavement, marronage, and the masking tradition.
Initially, we used a set of outlines as a scaffold to connect the moving parts. The visual art formed the first layer of expression on the theme. Our poems and stories added a second, living layer to further elaborate on that theme. Music, live and pre-recorded, added a third layer of meaning as well as transition cues for both the performers and audience. We would physically move from wall to wall as we proceeded from theme to theme.
Playing to Our Strengths
Cherice: During the process, I realized that on some level, I was running away from me. I was in essence, trying to conform to ideals that were in direct conflict with my artistic methodology and core values. Sometimes even at 60 years old, I need to have me time with my mom who has been associated with the tradition for over 60 years. It was the quiet conversations about my struggles that literally led me to my light. I am, first and foremost, a mom and teacher.
What was missing from the sterile outlines were my babies and expressions/artistic creations that make me Queen Reesie, Herreast and Donald Harrison, Sr.’s daughter. I sat with my mom in her den and had an epiphany. I found a way to include our youth members and completed a monologue I had struggled with for over a month. The root my problem was ignoring the strong roots of the tradition. Once I embraced the historical root, my pieces came together in a manner that was embraced by the cast and tradition bearers at the public performance.
John and Deidre were unavailable for a few weeks; instead of that being a setback, it became an opportunity to expand the production with an opening scene that included the youth members, the beginning creation of a quilt and the refinement of a story on indigo, all of which were positively noted by audience members on feedback sheets.
Deidre: Although I had lived in New Orleans for five years and had many connections there, I was definitely an outsider to the masking tradition and the tight-knit Guardians of the Flame. In mid-July, facing the threat of riding out a hurricane alone in a house with my two-year-old son (I had been through Isaac alone in 2012), I decided to evacuate. What was initially supposed to be a few days away while the storm blew over turned into a mini-odyssey that lasted a couple of weeks and took us to the South Carolina low country, where several generations of family had lived on my mother’s and father’s side before migrating north to Washington, DC.
It turned out to be a real blessing in disguise. My son and I visited Sullivan’s Island, which was the largest port of entry for Africans during the slave trade; more than 40 percent landed there and were quarantined before being taken to Charleston and sold in the Slave Market or on one of the many auction blocks set up around the city. This inspired the first persona poem about a woman who was carried across the ocean in her mother’s belly and born in a dungeon. (The other poems explored that her decision to Maroon when she became pregnant with her own daughter, and that daughter’s perspective as someone who was born and raised in a Maroon settlement with enslavement as a scary story she had heard but not lived.)
Friends who happened to be in Charleston shared the information they had learned on a Gullah city tour, and I dug into the South Carolina sections of our Maroon research materials. On the way back, we also visited the Oyotunji African Village and the Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage, where a research assistant helped me identify the name of the plantation where my ancestors had lived before the Civil War. These deepened connections to my own lineage and presence in this nation strengthened me for the final leg of our project, teaching me to find comfort in my outsider role without loving and admiring New Orleans culture any less; I chose to focus my persona poems on experiences closer to home.
Thinking, Dancing, and Storytelling our Feet
In the end, we presented the community with a living patchwork quilt that can be presented whole or in parts: an art gallery “container” filled with dramatic presentations, persona poems, narrative songs by children and elders, West African drumming, and ritual procession in ceremonial attire arranged around a loosely chronological exploration of enslavement, resistance, marronage, family, and tradition beginning in Africa, traversing the ocean, traveling time along the Maroon settlements and ending in New Orleans of the recent past and present.
In addition to the dress art, beaded narrative artwork, quilt, photographs, and historical artifacts contributed by Queen Cherice, one wall was devoted to a slide show of photos of Harrison family members, participants in the masking tradition, and images from the former Maroon sites we had visited. Deidre also contributed a pair of posters that related to her persona poems and blended the historic and imagined: a reward poster for the speaker in one of her poems, and a newspaper ad and a newspaper ad from the same character trying to re-establish contact with her mother. Between them lay a door and a key.
In practice, our “container” functioned as a hybrid between a gallery and a stage. The audience clustered along the edges of the room while performers worked with the open space and mobile staircase in the middle of the room. Two in-the-moment additions that were very well-received by the audience were 1) an impromptu gallery talk by Queen Cherice, which took the audience on a deeper dive into the story that the displayed artwork was telling, and 2) the finale, during which Young Guardians’ Princess Ariya was joined by Wendi O’Neal-Moore in a call-and-response version of “We Are the Children.” The audience was so deeply engaged in both instances.
Deidre: I had a smaller vision of the final program, probably because I am used to just writing my portion or a script and showing up to read, perform, or watch the finished product. I envisioned a staged reading and talkback; however, the inclusion of additional Guardians and especially the Young Guardians were fantastic additions to the program that led to a truly unique, multigenre presentation I surely could not have envisioned on my own.
Cherice: Most of what we do is rooted from personal experiences and tradition mores. We work collaboratively in informal settings and present our narrative expressions through visual, song, dance and oral storytelling. We are never bound by exact words and value being ready to improvise, have each other’s back. As we move forward with Maroon Messengers Calling, we will focus more on the purity of our expressions in non-traditional settings, the exchange of practices with directors, technical directors, and other production team members.