This weekend, I went back to Port Gibson, Mississippi for the first time since 2004. My boss, Patty Crosby, was retiring from Mississippi Cultural Crossroads, an organization she founded 30 years ago.
Going back to Port Gibson, honoring Patty and celebrating her and the unbelievable body of work which she and her husband Dave have created over the past 30 years has been very humbling for me, motivating and emotional and troubling.
Patty first called me in December, 2001. Her board wanted to do a Murder Mystery Dinner Theater play as a fundraiser, and she needed a guest artist to come direct. I had just finished working for Cornerstone Theater Company (which Patty had brought in back in 1992 for a famed interracial Romeo and Juliet production that first garnered national attention for C’stone). Bill Rauch recommended me. I talked Patty into hiring me, telling her I could write a locally based murder mystery play, direct it with a cast of local people, and teach an after-school workshop all by myself, despite the fact that I had never done any of these things.
Three weeks later, I packed up my rusted to shit ’85 Prelude which had taken me all over the country, and drove to Port Gibson. I passed through Vicksburg, a dying port town in which I had spent a memorable night in six months before, sleeping at the Motel Dixiana, turned South on 61, and drove 30 more miles to the town “too beautiful to burn”, as U.S. Grant apocryphally called it during his march to the sea.
Now, for a girl who had most recently lived in Los Angeles and New York, this was a change, to put it mildly: the town has 1500 people, and is the county seat of a 7,000 person county. The racial divide is still firmly entrenched: 80% black, much of it in poverty; the remaining 20%, white folks who still, for the most part, control the money. One of the most famous civil rights cases that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund ever won was Claiborne Hardware et al vs. NAACP, in which local white businesses sued the NAACP and black residents for boycotting them. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and was finally decided (against the white businesses, of course) in 1982.
I came to direct one play, I came for three months. I stayed and directed four plays over the course of 15 months between January 2002 and September 2003. In doing so, I pretty much dropped out of the community of theater-makers that I had built up in New York and elsewhere. I pretty much fell off the map.
It was quite a lonely time. My cell phone didn’t get reception and I was mostly alone and sometimes it felt that anyone my age who still lived in the town was either an alcoholic or had been in jail or had multiple kids. I would drive the hour to Jackson every week and back, despite the fact that Jackson isn’t the most hopping of Southern cities (leave that to Birmingham and Atlanta and Nashville and pre-Katrina New Orleans), to talk on my cell phone and buy a block of tofu and sit in a cafe and have a proper cup of coffee or a proper non-Budweiser bottle of beer.
Of course, it was also an exhilarating time, which is why I stayed and let myself fall off the map for two years. There was something very clean about the quiet of a small rural town–I read and wrote and learned my civil rights history properly for the first time in my life.
I experienced previously unimaginable American realities (for me, at least) every day–from the catfish farms to the strip club where the deer hunters hung out to the Pink Palace juke joint in Hermansville to the drag show in the black gay club in Jackson. I was taught how to shoot a gun by rednecks in the backwoods, and drank beer at the white honky tonk out in the shadow of the nuclear power plant.
I spoke at the all-white Lion’s Club lunch and had the first female black welder in the county show me her self-published romance novels. I went to a bazillion different church services, trawling for local participants. I karaoked with the white working class in Vicksburg on a Friday night, smoked blunts and sipped sizzurp in Clancy’s white Mercedes SUV which had “GODIVA” stenciled on the front window.
I spent the day on the banks of the Bayou Pierre with middle aged good ol’ boys, now sober and marked by their wild youth, as they told me alternating stories of soberness and bitterness and thankfulness. I saw my first fireflies and thunderstorms and hurricanes. I drove to nearly every city and teeny town in Mississippi with a performing troupe of 14-year old rural black kids who’d never been onstage, allowed them to “baptize” me in a Starkville motel pool, and had them do theater games on Faulkner’s lawn in Oxford.
All of which was pretty damn cool.
But it was much more than the glamour of the unknown and exotic. I also was engaged in one of the most intensive periods of learning in my life. My whole life changed. And that’s because of Patty Crosby.
Patty and Dave are collaboratively responsible for the outstanding programming and organizational strength of Mississippi Cultural Crossroads–their tentacles extend to so many different kinds of Good Works: art in the schools for all ages; afterschool arts; Summer Arts job programs for teenagers; their beloved Peanut Butter & Jelly, a pro-literacy traveling summer children’s theater; community health programs; community reading programs; the documentation of and support of local craft arts, especially quilting, for which previously unrecognized local quilters were given NEA grants; local historical research of larger national import, from extensive and exquisitely documented oral history collection to exhibits on the local civil rights movement, the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrel Show which was stationed in Port Gibson, and the stunning rediscovery and exhibition of early 20th century photographs taken by Leigh Briscoe Allen, a planter’s son. And of course, live theater.
All of their programming would overlap–the theater would connect to literacy; the arts programs would connect to teaching kids professional skills; oral history collection would be done by teenagers. It’s shockingly impressive to witness the depth and breadth of their work in retrospect–this is the hot shit in current arts and culture funding, and they’ve been doing it, brilliantly, for 30 years!
So Patty and Dave are the pillars of the Great Work. But Patty was my boss. She and I worked together for all of these months, and the way she understood and explained things had a profound impact on me. I knew I had to work with her until I could absorb some of her worldview. She knows how to read the world with simultaneous causation: she sees how the forces of history and current socioeconomic structures and psychology and personality all intersect to explain a moment. And she always can explain it with a story.
For example–I was irritated with a teacher at the local public high school. Patty broke it down–in terms of this teacher’s personal life and personality, but also in terms of the culture of the local school system, and then also in terms of how that culture of the local school system developed historically and in relation to the civil rights movement.
I tell you what–her insight and Dave’s insight humbled me, and kept me from ever presuming to write one of those, “white intellectual/Ivy leaguer comes to the South, is shocked” narratives that New York publishers love to gobble up. Like this. Or this. Or even, as much as I love it, this.
It was so powerful, my time in Mississippi. It was so important to me. Because I felt the purpose of the work we were doing was so strong, that I didn’t even mind truly surrendering my own will as an artist to represent the community. Enough so, that I stayed longer than was probably good for me, given the dearth of a personal community and lack of an outlet to express my own self creatively (or oftentimes, socially).
Being back there. Being back there. What did it mean to be back there?
I was most powerfully reminded of that sense of purpose. And of Patty’s importance to me as a mentor. And it leaves me, today, wondering how to translate what was so momentous about that time back to my own life. Not necessarily in the type of work I do–as a teacher and facilitator/director of community-based work, I’ve clearly taken my time in Port Gibson forward with me.
But the spirit of it. That sense of possibility and purpose and importance that suffused my every day there. That hopefulness, and the pride in what I was doing. Also, Patty’s stubbornness vision. Her eagle-eyed way of really knowing and understanding a place. How do I translate that to the messier and larger arena of Oakland?
This plugs into a larger question I’ve been asking myself–about arrogance. Where is my arrogance, the necessary arrogance of an artist that makes the rest of the life worthwhile? Did I ever have it? Will I never have it? Did the obvious needs of Mississippi let me avoid answering that question of myself?
And now? Where is the fire, now? How do I do as Patty does–to let all the petty bullshit around me not touch that inner fire?