Mardi Gras & Watershed Discipleship: an interview with Tevyn East

This Tuesday is Mardi Gras or “Fat Tuesday,” the last day before Lent (the season of fasting and prayer leading up to Easter on the Christian calendar). On Mardi Gras, many people gather for big events called Carnival: eating, dancing, and making merry. Historically, this Christian festival provides a means to purge perishable items before Lent while also allowing space for a rebellious mockery of existing orders. This practice of over-the-top excess right before weeks of self-denial may seem to encourage the unhealthy cycle of binging and purging in Western culture, rather than a more sustainable equilibrium of “enough.” However, with the historical context of Carnival in mind, we can see it as a celebration of community vitality, which often must take the shape of a defiant rebellion against the unhealthy constraints of a repressive church hierarchy. With this lens in mind, how can we approach Mardi Gras as a practice of watershed discipleship?

To help answer this question, I turned to Tevyn East of Holy Fool Arts. For several years now, the Holy Fools have been bringing the Carnival de Resistance (as well as other artistic productions) to communities across the country. Through music, drama, dance, and creative retellings of biblical stories for our time, the Holy Fools have been inviting audiences to engage with watershed discipleship through embodied worship and activism. I asked Tevyn to share with us a little bit about how their work connects with Carnival, what the Carnival de Resistance is all about, and where and when we can participate.

Cherice Bock: Where does the idea of Carnival come from?

Carnival de Resistance, photo by Tim Nafziger

Tevyn EastCarnival, which occurs immediately before Lent, is a festive season involving a public celebration, parade, ball, and/or street party, with masks, music, and dancing. Because Lent, especially within medieval culture, demanded fasting and self-examination, all such perishable food and drink had to be consumed before Ash Wednesday. This giant “chow down” and communal celebration is thought to be the origin of Carnival, which thrived particularly in Catholic regions.

Like many other Christian holidays, however, Carnival traditions also resemble feasts that date back to pre-Christian times. The roots of the Italian Carnival drew from ancient Roman festivals, such as Saturnalia and Bacchanalia, which in turn connect to earlier Greek Dionysian festivals, which were influenced by even older Egyptian festivals.

The fusion of church celebrations and pagan festivals allowed the newly converted to retain their otherwise subversive practices. For example, the Catholic Feast of Fools, a day for liturgical dramas that dissolved church hierarchy, celebrated becoming a “fool for Christ” (1 Cor 4:10)(1 Cor. 4) and enacted the upturning manifesto of the Magnificat (Lk 1:52-53). This feast day was later suppressed by Catholic authorities, and wholly condemned by early Protestants. Still, though forbidden by the Council of Basel in 1431, such festivities lived on for centuries within medieval folk culture. Europeans eventually brought many such religious festivities to the New World, under the common label “Carnival.”

Carnival traditions are a result of cross-cultural exchange; the greatest contemporary Carnival experiences, such as those in Brazil, Trinidad, and New Orleans, reveal that the tradition flourished where Catholic European settlers and African slaves interacted. For Africans in diaspora, Carnival became a tool for both emancipation and the preservation of cultural memory in the midst of bondage.

CB: How does this idea of Carnival relate to the work of the Holy Fools?

Carnival de Resistance, photo by Tim Nafziger

TE: The Carnival de Resistance intentionally draws upon the historical function of Carnival, with all its transgressive energy and space for cultural exchange. We draw on the topsy-turvy legacy of carnival that suspends the rules and reverses the roles governing normal life. The Carnival Crew studies carnival traditions across the globe, and explores their ancient, recurring themes of communal participation (resisting separation), festive celebration (resisting despair), embodiment and play (resisting fear of the body), and mockery of power structures and dominant norms (resisting injustice). Means of generating social change are often deadly serious, focused on opposition, and lacking in opportunities for people to embody and participate in life-giving alternatives to the status quo. Rather than simply demonstrating against the dominant system, we want to create community spaces where people can do things like learn how to build a fossil-fuel-free solar oven, collaboratively paint murals, and have joyous dance parties with their neighbors.

CB: What does the Carnival de Resistance look like?

Carnival de Resistance, photo by Tim Nafziger

TE: The Carnival de Resistance is a traveling arts carnival, eco-village demonstration project, and education and outreach initiative. During the weekends of our Carnival residencies, the audience is invited into a world of sideshow tents, art installations, roving performers, and midway games that use play to educate. Then, under the Carnival big top, our feature productions weave circus arts, theater, music, and ritual, and culminate in live drum and dance parties. Throughout our residencies, the Carnival Crew becomes community, demonstrating fossil fuel free practices in our eco-village. During the weekdays, we engage with the larger community, working to shine a spotlight on local issues and support existing resistance efforts.

CB: In what ways is the Carnival de Resistance an act of watershed discipleship?

Carnival de Resistance, photo by Tim Nafziger

TE: When we set up residency in a particular place, the Carnival Crew engages with local partnering organizations. The skills and passions of our local Crew members determine the volunteer work and program offerings within a given residency, including artistic skills, educational offerings, and tools for sustainable living. In addition to our theatrical performances, we are involved in many other activities while embedded in a residency. Those with land-based skills lead work in community gardens or provide skill-shares on how to build solar ovens or hand-crank laundry machines. We engage with the larger community, working to shine a spotlight on local issues and support existing resistance efforts.

Carnival de Resistance, photo by Tim Nafziger

Throughout it all, the Carnival de Resistance functions as a two-week-long eco-village site that demonstrates alternative methods of energy use, waste management, transportation, food gathering and preparation. While we offer tours to local church, school and seminary groups, the village chiefly operates as a learning space for the Crew to experiment with sustainable practices and to implement daily rhythms shaped by a communal focus. We call it a Holy Game, as we significantly unplug from the industries and systems we rely on, curb our consumption of media, and trust in the Holy Spirit to reveal that which we are often too distracted, satiated or isolated to experience.

CB: In what ways can we participate in the Carnival de Resistance?

Carnival de Resistance, photo by Tim Nafziger

TEHoly Fools Arts is readying for its 7th Carnival de Resistance residency, which will be coming to Philadelphia in the summer of 2018. Each Carnival residency is a sprawling, ambitious, many-splendored project that would be impossible to sustain without robust partnerships. Shaped by the topsy-turvy mission and ethos of carnival, we have been actively exploring opportunities for collaboration with regional partners and our local Kensington neighbors. This has led to fruitful connections with several incredible organizations, including The Simple Way, Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, Circle of Hope, and The Alternative Seminary; we are thrilled that these organizations have decided to partner with us in birthing the Philadelphia residency. As part of our commitment to transgressing and transforming barriers, the Philadelphia iteration of the Carnival de Resistance will continue to focus on cross-cultural exchange, accountability to communities of color, and collaboration with diverse networks.

Carnival de Resistance, photo by Tim Nafziger

Stay tuned for exciting location updates in the near future, and be sure to join us in Philly this summer! Even if you don’t live in or near Philadelphia, you can participate by signing up for our newsletter, liking our Facebook page, or offering ongoing financial support as an individual or organization. If you’re interested in having the Holy Fools bring the Carnival de Resistance or one of our other shows to your church, school, or community, let us know!