Shaped from sticks, torn pieces of brown paper bags, newspaper, and paste, bones were in the making at Powderhorn Park in September as artists and community members gathered to prepare for BareBones Extravaganza 2021.
In partnership with Festival de Las Calaveras, the outdoor puppetry and performance art spectacle BareBones will return to the southside for a day-long event on Oct. 31. It will include a community pageant procession from Powderhorn Park to the festival at Chicago Ave. and Lake St., followed by an evening concert and cabaret. Although it will be a different format from their annual event, some of the event regulars will be back: puppets, stilts, skeletons, music – and opportunities to honor and grieve departed loved ones.
Its theme, “El Grito de los Ancestros” / “the Cry of the Ancestors,” which came to several people in different forms – for example, a Peruvian BareBones community member wishing to acknowledge a recent discovery of an ancient mummy in Peru and a Native American youth wishing to represent the children whose remains had been found at boarding schools – resonates strongly with event leaders.
“I feel the ancestors are watching over us right now,” said co-director Mina Leierwood. “The racial reckoning that we’re going through right now is a chance for us to do the work that our ancestors couldn’t do. We’re carrying on the work for justice and righteousness, equity, community so it’s our job to keep trying. And we have this opportunity in this moment right now in Minneapolis to really step forward in this work. It’s an opportunity to heal. And so giving people a space to grieve publicly in whatever cultural way they know how is important to healing our city.”
The theme touches on grief, loss and death, and in this COVID-19 has made for an exceptionally hard year.
As a Minneapolis schoolteacher, Leierwood thinks this is especially true for teenagers coming of age during the pandemic. Distance learning cut them off from their friends and some of their favorite activities. Some adapted well enough, but others are, in Leierwood’s word, “floundering.”
“We have a lot of kids that have lost an entire year of academics, and it’s not their fault,” said Leierwood. “The kids are kids. How can we be there for our kids at this time when they’re coming of age, at the most difficult time?”
And losses from COVID-19 are widely felt.
“Everyone that I know has lost someone important to them. And not only have we lost persons, but we’ve lost places, businesses, the arts organizations, music, musicians. So the last year and a half has been filled with sorrow and pain,” said Leierwood. With the Extravaganza, “we’re giving people a place to express that publicly together. And I hope safely.”
As the show’s director of procession, Leierwood thinks an outdoor procession is about the safest way a group can be together. Young people will be strongly featured, and one of the stops along the route will be near the Say Their Names Cemetery at the northern end of George Floyd Square.
“It’s sacred ground… We’re in uncharted territory. But people in the area feel like we don’t want it ever to go back to the same corner that it was. Ever. We want it to stay sacred,” she said.
Leierwood, an artist who has been part of BareBones for 10-15 years, is one of three co-directors for the event. Uproar Performing Arts Founder Xochi de la Luna, a longtime fan of BareBones who has also volunteered as usher, and Minneapolis School Board Member Adriana Cerrillo, who is new to BareBones, are also co-directors.
Art and political oppression
What got Cerrillo, the show’s director of culture, excited to lead was the opportunity to come together as one community.
“This is what community looks like,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what ethnicity, what is your cultural background, religion – regardless of all of these things, at the end of the day we are one human family.”
The event is also a natural extension of her personal and community work.
“I’ve been incorporating art into the way that I work with my Latino community when it comes to talking about all the political oppression that we live under on a daily basis, especially when it comes to separation of families because of the lack of comprehensive immigration reform,” she said.
Kids will be engaged at the event through workshops that will be set up in an empty lot at Chicago Ave. and Lake St. One station might be to make papier-mâché, another to make cards, as Cerrillo describes, to “bring together the names of people that have passed through to a better life that have influenced our life.
“It’s an opportunity for young children, especially when we don’t talk about death, for them to understand that death is part of life. Therefore, we must live every single moment,” she said.
Xochi de la Luna sees a lot of crossover in what BareBones does with its pagan-inspired performance and ancestry, with Dia de los Muertos. Their role, as director of performance, is to oversee the Ancestors Concert, which will offer the traditional BareBones calling of the names, and the cabaret.
Additionally, the directors are collaborating with Deborah Ramos, the director of Festival de las Calaveras.
To the directors’ knowledge, this is the first year that Brown people are forming the leadership of BareBones, and they embrace the opportunity to deepen cultural understanding.
“I wanted a space for Latinos that wanted to be involved… but also were interested in doing like a cross-cultural exchange with the BareBones community… [and] the Minneapolis community at large, to offer up how they grieve and celebrate life,” said de la Luna.
They see hesitation from non-Latino folk being plugged into Dia de los Muertos-focused programming but welcome the exchange and people’s questions. “Because how else are you going to know about our practices? And we can tell you boundaries and what not, so that you’re able to do it with respect,” said de la Luna.
“I feel like a… misconception folks have is that Dia de los Muertos is a Spanish Halloween. It is not. It’s a sacred holiday about celebrating life and about grief, and we want folks to get a hang of that,” they said. “Hopefully this helps people understand that a little bit more.”
De la Luna is taking care to ensure that even the cabaret is not simply “performative.”
“There’s ways to celebrate it without appropriating it,” she said. She’s hiring four artists for the cabaret, to fit within the theme, El Grito de los Ancestros, and focus on “pieces that have to do with life and grief or pain.”
After years of billing it as a “Halloween” event, BareBones has dropped the word in order to honor all traditions.
BareBones has been around since the mid-1990s, performing in various parks, including Minnehaha Regional Park, before settling into Hidden Falls in St. Paul in 2003. Last year, the pandemic forced them to do a completely different type of event. Facilitated by Lelis Brito and Harry Waters, Jr., it was called “Offerings” and featured installations by 40 artists along Lake St.
“We couldn’t even announce performances by Masanari Kawahara, because we didn’t want crowds to gather,” said Leierwood. Kawahara is an award-winning dancer, who created and performed a Japanese Butoh piece titled “8’46” (Movement for Healing).”
This is just one representation of the toll COVID-19 has taken on artists.
“It’s been terrible,” said Leierwood, who lost a musician friend to suicide during the pandemic. “My heart is with the musicians and artists and art organizations and venues that have lost funding and have been devastated by the pandemic… If your income was dependent on your music or your art, it’s been a really tough time. People are still struggling along as best they can. Holding out for a brighter day.”
Leierwood mentioned the Powderhorn Porchfest, which had just taken place in the neighborhood and seemed to have brought a needed release. “It felt like New Orleans – people playing music on their porches and people dancing in the streets. They did have some COVID protocols. That’s what BareBones has to do, too.”
Artist krewes at work
As of now, plans are to return to Hidden Falls in 2022. This year, though, will see another reimagined event in South Minneapolis. In part to keep working groups small, BareBones is adopting the New Orleans approach used for Mardi Gras and other carnivals: Artist “krewes” have been formed to work at separate sites developing specific puppets, floats and other features they will bring to the pageant procession. At the time of this writing, an Indigenous krewe, Latina/Latino krewe, Afro Black krewe, Asian krewe, East African krewe, Stilting krewe, Bicycle Contraption krewe and Justice krewe were already established, with more to be added.
As community-based theater, BareBones is trying to be together as much as possible. Meeting outdoors at the park is a lower risk way to do that, and it’s a space where they can do community building exercises, theater games and more.
At the gathering on Sept. 19, Tara Fahey and Mariah Mantz sat on the lawn, creating bones. Fahey was excited to be able to work together a little bit more, saying “It was sticky with COVID.” She was also excited about collaborating with the Festival de las Calaveras, “Stretching in new ways, and learning. We all have ancestors and we all have grief.”
Mantz, who moved to the area in June, was participating for the first time.
“It’s super cool it’s open to all community members. Theater can be tight knit,” she said. “I’ll come back.”
Returning artist and former BareBones Board Member Marian Lucas also attended the community gathering at Powderhorn Park. Lucas, who is deaf, created an installation for the 2020 event called “MN Ice,” which featured embroidery on a window screen with the words “Equal Justice” and moving ASL elements.
“I’m a lady of leisure. I can get involved in stuff. It’s been hard being the only deaf person, but people make me feel welcome,” she said through an interpreter. “We try to communicate. “We can create life together. It’s been a fun experience for me.”