Think bigotry is ruining the Mummers? Check out this skit
The Philadelphia Mummers Parade, which began officially in 1901, has always been about parody. Now one group, the Rabble Rousers New Year's Brigade, is turning its critique on a subject that's awfully close to home: other Mummers, parade judges, the media that broadcasts the event, and the parade organizers themselves.
The Philadelphia Mummers Parade, which began officially in 1901, has always been about parody.
Now one group, the Rabble Rousers New Year's Brigade, is turning its critique on a subject that's awfully close to home: other Mummers, parade judges, the media that broadcasts the event, and the parade organizers themselves.
Their performance, entitled "A Parade of Excuses: Cleaning Up Our Act," comes with this confrontational tagline: "A skit about how bigotry is ruining the country's oldest folk parade."
Rabble Rousers member Gregory Labold, 34, said the group is aware backlash may follow. "Some very closed-minded people are going to be upset with us, maybe. That's a risk we're going to have to take."
But Labold, a Kensington-based artist, said the skit is in support of a Mummers tradition that's positive and inclusive: "This is the New Year's Day parade for everyone in the city, not just for one kind of person. We've got a very diverse city."
Half a dozen members of the Rabble Rousers were working sprawled on the floor or hunched over tables in an artists' space in Kensington on Wednesday night, making last-minute costumes: gluing together triangles of fabric to look like feathers or encasing loops of wire in plastic wrap to suggest insect wings.
The group, which first marched in 2011, performs in the parade on alternate years. Their last time around, in 2015, they performed a skit about Net neutrality.
But a few members of the group marched on their own in last year's parade, and said they found the climate intimidating. In addition to the public controversies that plagued the parade - a ham-handed parody of Caitlyn Jenner's gender reassignment, accompanied by one Mummer shouting a homophobic slur, went viral - they encountered personal threats.
"We were marching with someone with 'Black Lives Matter' bedazzled on her back, and she had beer bottles thrown at her, and she was screamed at, cursed at," Labold said.
Though the Mummers leadership promised changes, including a series of sensitivity trainings that took place this year, some of the Rabble Rousers don't expect offensive incidents to cease. So, they wanted to address the issue head-on.
"This year we'll have a skit within a skit. There will be judges, cameras to represent the media, and ribbons awarded," said Jarmel Reitz, 33, an artist and Kensington resident. The sketch will include two competing brigades: a group of flies, representing negative stereotypes in the parade, and a group of colorful birds. "They'll express how beautiful this parade can be without offending anyone," she said.
"It's a jab at the organizers who put this parade on. They allow bigotry, and so it continues."
Then, instead of joining other Mummers on Second Street for the traditional, debauched parade after-party, they'll return to Kensington to parade through the neighborhood and perform for neighbors in front of Philadelphia Brewing Co.
Jesse Engaard, 34, the Rabble Rousers' captain, said the skit fits squarely into the comics' tradition of satire.
"I think a lot of the guys in the mummers have a good sense of humor, and I think they'll understand," he said. "If they expect everyone to not be so sensitive, they're going to know what it feels like and understand the point of it. That's my hope. I think that everyone is going to enjoy it."
The group is marching as part of the Landi Comic Club, one of three "mother" clubs within the parade's Comic Division.
Landi's president, Chuck Tomasco, said he has some concerns.
"I personally was not crazy about what they're doing. I thought the issue was behind us. But I left it up to the city parade director's discretion," he said.
Still, Tomasco, who took over the leadership of Landi this year, is building a different kind of comic club.
Landi has now absorbed half a dozen nontraditional Mummers groups, including the San Mateo Carnavaleros, which draws on Mexican traditions; the Miss Fancy Brigade, a drag group; the Philadelphia Pan Stars Steel Orchestra, a Trinidadian steel-drum band; and Southeast by Southeast, out of the Mural Arts hub for Southeast Asian communities.
There has been trepidation among some of those participants, in light of incidents that have occurred around the region and the nation following the presidential election.
David Pina, president of the Carnavaleros, said some members of his group had hesitated initially, but in the end, more than 100 Carnavaleros have committed to march.
"We're safe," he said. "We're going to show up. We're going to dance. We're going to enjoy it."
A Mummer since 1970, Tomasco believes the parade, and Landi, should be open to anyone who wants to embrace the tradition.
"Some of those people may have their own agenda. My job is to teach them how to become Mummers," he said.
"I'm curious as to the crowd's reaction to some of these acts we're going to put on the street - but I can't control that. We'll see what happens."