How's Bayou? Hunting for Clementine
It pays to read to the end of a story -- for insights, or a choice bit of information.
In the last paragraph of her profile of Tom Whitehead, a recent biographer of Cane River "primitive" painter Clementine Hunter, in last September's Country Roads magazine, writer Ruth Laney mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that one of America's most celebrated theatrical innovators, displaced Texan Robert Wilson, was debuting a chamber opera, Zinnias, based substantially on Whitehead's recollections of Hunter's life, at Montclair State University in New Jersey at the end of January. So off I headed last weekend.
Taking a wrong turn off NJ46 put me in the proper frame of mind for the evening.
Realizing I was lost, with time growing short, I pulled over to a windowless watering hole, just off the road, to ask for directions.
Whoops! Inside, at a long bar, nubile Jersey Girls in string bikinis were sharing drinks with Jersey Boys in leather jackets. The bouncer didn't know anything about a university, but his buddy stepped in and suggested that I turn around and go back to where I came from, which turned out to be the right thing to do.
One of Hunter's most popular subjects is "Saturday Night at the Honky Tonk" -- a scene in which bullets fly though the air while a victim lies dying, as a doctor and ambulance arrive, in a compression of time that would make perfect sense in a Robert Wilson production.
While in the roadside lounge, I pictured myself in The Friendly Place, the barroom that kept Hunter awake with loud noise and bullets, and it occurred to me that this might be one of the reasons Wilson was attracted to Hunter's work.
She was, in effect, creating timeless tableaux, with the unearthly stillness of one of Wilson's transfixing Voom video portraits of celebrities like Brad Pitt and Mikhail Baryshnikov, in which the slightest movement takes several minutes to complete.
In Hunter's paintings, there's an implicit storyline, drawn from careful observation, and you immediately sense what's going on -- as, for example, in her depiction of a Cane River Wedding, where the bride towers over the groom and the hapless preacher is about the size of a puppy toy. This was Clementine's way -- as she sings in Wilson's compressed-but-gleefully-flowing 90-minute chamber opera -- "to say things that can't be written."
You know that Zinnias (Hunter's favorite still-life subject) the opera is going to be a joyful event the moment the cast is introduced, one by one, as they sashay through open doorways of a blowup of Hunter's trademark image of Melrose Plantation's African House, near Natchitoches, Louisiana, whose interior she emblazoned in 1953, at age 67, with "markings" of plantation life that came to her in half-waking dreams that must have resonated with Wilson when he first visited Melrose at the age of 12 and purchased a Hunter painting for a quarter.
The journey from then to now has lasted almost 60 years, and Wilson has lost none of his delight in Clementine's life story. But this production is still "Absolute Wilson," the title of a coffee table biography. Zinnias is to Wilson-and-Philip-Glass's monumental five-hour chef d'oeuvre, Einstein on the Beach, as an iPad mini is to the original iPad: Everything's there, but so much easier to work with.
Composer Toshi Reagon's (with her mother Bernice Johnson Reagon) encyclopedic melange of Southern music, from Zydeco and Country Western to Gospel and Doo-Wop -- with lotsa g'itar pickin' from a five-piece pit orchestra of two guitarists, violin, bass and drums -- keeps the action rolling and still manages to underscore the sadder moments of Hunter life with quiet compassion and occasional pathos or outrage.
When Broadway artist Carla Duran, portraying Clementine spot-on to my recollections, sings of her dreams -- "My skies are filled with flyin' angels," it's against a background of ballad music that both Clementine and Wilson might have heard on North Louisiana and Waco, Texas AM radio stations in the 1950s. Exuberant choreography, and effective use of evocative individual and group silhouettes, evoke both Martha Graham and Mark Morris, no small achievement.
Some of the details are conjectural, or disputed by various Clementine intimes. But who cares if Clementine actually critiqued a painting by artist Alberta Kinsey, who had left behind the paints that Clementine first used to create, when Duran and Darynn Zimmerman, as Kinsey, launch into a rollicking duet over a booming ground base of the word "Cotton," a North Louisiana staple and subject of many Hunter paintings.
Clementine's mentor, the elusive Francois Mignon, born Frank Mineah in Cortland, New York in 1899, had moved to Melrose, which the owner, "Miss Cammie" Henry, had recast as a retreat for creative folks -- think a kinder, gentler Watermill Center, Wilson's center of creative expression on Long Island -- and transformed himself into an eternally-khaki-clad French expatriate who had graduated from the Sorbonne. Actor Robert Osborne achieved a similar transformation when he became Mignon on stage, down to the high-waisted tan trousers and incessant patting of an annoying bald spot.
Sheryl Sutton, clad in a severe, full-length black dress with puffed sleeves, was the visual link to previous Wilson works, having appeared in Einstein on the Beach and more than 30 others. With her hair swept up into a cone like an iconic Hunter angel ("That's what your hair does when you fly") she sat silently in a chair to the side of the stage or moved "one foot in three minutes," as one unsuccessful auditioner described the tryout directions, circumnavigating the stage ominously as a dark commentary on the story.
The rest of the costumes, each a single color, echoed Hunter's vibrant, primary palette -- men in what could have passed for scrubs at Rainbow Hospital, women in a more flattering A-line shape. Only Clementine's royal blue frock sported images, geometric shapes that echoed shapes in one of her earliest quilts.
Clementine had promised me that she'd find someone to drive her to my wedding in 1981. She never made it; but when the final chorus, booming a litany of Hunter's achievements, declared she'd turned down Jimmy Carter's invitation to the White House, I no longer felt slighted that she never made it to Madewood, our big, white house.
The evening ended with an image that could have materialized just as easily from John Waters' Hairspray as from Wilson's Einstein: Clementine driving Francois slowly across the stage in a sleek replica of Miss Cammie's circa-1960 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible.
If that isn't the perfect way of saying, without writing it down, that Robert Wilson has engaged the masses in his creation of Zinnias, nothing is.
If You Go: Tickets are still available at the remarkable price (for a Wilson performance) of $15, Saturday evening, January 2 and Sunday afternoon, January 3, online at the theater website, www.peakperfs.org/
How's Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.
How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.