Camping in Jerusalem Rev Dr Durrell Watkins Palm Sunday 2014 (Bic Banana video) That, of course, was Charles Nelson Reilly, who though a classically trained actor and brilliant acting teacher, was as importantly a Camp hero. Did you notice how Charles sang about the colors being bright and gay? And was it my imagination or […]
Camping in Jerusalem
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
Palm Sunday 2014
(Bic Banana video) That, of course, was Charles Nelson Reilly, who though a classically trained actor and brilliant acting teacher, was as importantly a Camp hero.
Did you notice how Charles sang about the colors being bright and gay? And was it my imagination or did he really hammer “gay”? Think it was code? Think it was a word of affirmation, a hint at acceptance, a thumbs up suggesting that we have our place in the world and we are an integral and necessary part of human diversity. Could a campy comic in a banana costume really offer all of that?
Here’s another clip with Charles Nelson Reilly from the campiest game show in the history of American television, Match Game (Snow White video).
He wants to call the dwarves Mon-Sun, in other words, he wants to call the dwarves, those MEN, every day of the week! Ha!
Isn’t that amazing? It’s the 70s! Marriage equality isn’t even a dream. Sodomy laws make many of us criminals in the states where we live, work, and pay taxes. MCC is only a few years old and Stonewall is still fresh in many people’s memories. And being “outed” can very much result in the loss of relationships or employment.
That’s the world we lived in at the time, and Charles Nelson Reilly, without ever saying the word gay or mentioning his life-partner or making any overt political statement was living out loud right in front of us. He used humor, clowning, exaggeration, wit, playfulness, and full blown ridiculousness to tell us who he was, and to let those of us who intuited the code that we’d be OK. There was a place of him in the world; there was a place for all of us. How ingeniously seditious is that?!! That’s Camp at its most successful.
Finally, here’s one last visit from one of my early heroes, Charles Nelson Reilly (Beverly Hills video).
That rapier wit. He was hardly a man of brawn, and yet still he was somehow so daring, so honest, so in your face, laughter his mighty weapon, and when people made fun of him, he chose to take it as good natured play. By making fun of himself first, others were powerless to hurt him when they hurled their insults…he had already co-opted their poisonous darts and immersed them in a comic antidote. And when he courageously and humorously poked fun at others he was so quick and so sharp, few would dare meet him head to head on that field of battle, and even those who received his playful jabs had to chuckle. Charm not only delivered the counter-cultural message, it disarmed many of those who might wish to respond more venomously.
Susan Sontag in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp” wrote, “Camp is generous… It only seems like…cynicism…(if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism).”
Sweet cynicism. Wasn’t that Charles Nelson Reilly?
Camp is the clever way marginalized people can speak truth to power with a wink and an empowering grin.
Camp is exaggeration.
Camp makes fun of what is odious while lifting up a subtle vision of what could be fabulous!
Camp acknowledges pain and treats it with the medicine of laughter.
Camp is so wonderfully bad it becomes brilliant; it is so ridiculous that it winds up being profound.
Sontag called it the “good taste of bad taste.”
An example of Camp that we all probably know would be the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters, while making fun of trappings and traditions that may not be as relevant as they once were, and that have actually contributed to the oppression of some, they also are affirming their own morals and values, the ideals of empowerment, the sacred value of all people, the sacredness of love regardless of the genders of those who share it. Bad drag can be good Camp and good Camp is very powerful.
Now, fascinating as all this is, it has what exactly to do with Palm Sunday? I’m so glad you asked!
Jesus and his troupe enter Jerusalem for Passover. Jerusalem is occupied by Rome, and at the main gate of the city there would have been an official parade that day, with governors and magistrates and nobles and military leaders. It was a show of power. Yes, Rome would allow Jerusalem to observe Passover, but Passover is a commemoration of the Jewish people liberating themselves from another empire, the Egyptian empire. So, Rome is basically saying, “enjoy your holiday, but don’t get any ideas. We know what you are celebrating and we are watching you.”
Jerusalem is well guarded, but Jesus has made a career, however brief it’s been, of helping people who felt broken finally feel whole. His reputation is growing, and the people traveling with him are very excited to travel with him to the big city. Once they get there, they help work up the local crowds into a frenzied state, sharing the news about this new prophet who makes people feel free even in the midst of imperial occupation.
With all this hype, Jesus can’t just see military exploitation and soul crushing shock and awe techniques and let them go unchallenged. But what sort of weapon is at this disposal?
Creativity. Street theatre. Camp.
The Roman officers ride with two war horses; one in tow as a spare in case the one they are riding is rendered lame.
Jesus mocks this practice by riding into town not on two noble steeds, but on two jack asses. He rides one and has the other in tow, just like the Roman soldiers. How funny is that? And when you’re laughing, you can’t be scared.
Jesus can’t overthrow Rome, but he can help people cast off the terror that has poisoned their souls!
The Romans used the front gate; Jesus and his entourage come through a lesser used, more ignominious back gate.
The Romans take their might, glory and ostentation so seriously; and Jesus and his gang laugh at it all. Rome can moisten our soil with our blood, but they can’t occupy our hearts without our permission. And we have some donkeys and palm fronds and spontaneous parades at back gates that all say our hearts remain our own. You cannot colonize an indomitable spirit!
Jesus is empowering the oppressed by giving them a playful way of expressing their anxieties, offering them a cathartic experience, facilitating a huge group “up yours” to the Roman Empire!
Passover is a remembrance of unarmed people walking away from Empire and finding freedom in the wilderness; without the mighty weapons, they used ritual, storytelling, and creativity to throw off the shackles of slavery.
And Jesus is helping the people celebrate Passover by reminding them that the weapon of creativity is still in their hands.
Wave the victor’s palm branches, through cloaks and leaves on the road like red carpet for royalty, form your own parade instead of attending the imperial show at the main gate, shout out praises and hopes even when courage and imagination and shear resilience are the only weapons you really have. But in the fullness of time, those may prove to be enough!
50 years later, the situation isn’t better; in fact, it’s worse.
Jesus for his cheek was arrested, tried, and executed.
40 years after that, Jerusalem was completely destroyed.
And now 10 or 15 years after that, Matthew is telling his tired and scared community, “yes things are still difficult, but remember when Jesus chose to hope anyway, chose to affirm possibilities anyway, chose to celebrate what could be even though there is no way of knowing when what could be might be? Things are still bad, but we still have the power of hope.”
And so, Matthew recalls Jesus’ camp performance from half a century earlier…like I still remember Charles Nelson Reilly 4 decades after he first touched my imagination.
In my favorite Stephen Sondheim musical, Follies, there is a character, Carlotta Campion (yes, CAMP is part of her name), a former performer in the Follies has returned for a reunion before the old theatre that housed the Follies is demolished. She was originally played by Yvonne DeCarlo after she had gone from being a big screen sex symbol to being the middle age mom in a Camp comedy called The Munsters. No wonder she performed the role with so powerfully.
Carlotta’s had ups and downs, successes and failures, career highs and lows, but she has endured.
“Black sable one day, next day it goes into hock; but I’m here.
Top billing Monday, Tuesday you’re touring in stock; but I’m here.
First you’re another slow eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then your CAMP.
Then you career from career, to career; I’m almost through my memoirs and I’m here!”
Matthew is telling his community…we’ve been through a lot, but we’re still here!
That’s the message of all camp performance. We’ve been through a lot, but we’re still here. And because we are still here, tomorrow may be the day that brings the miracle we need. That’s reason for hope and that’s the point of the Palm Sunday narrative, that ancient camp performance which is STILL the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2014
Laughter lifts me up.
Hope heals my heart.
I am strong and full of life.
And I believe that the future has infinite possibilities.