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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Shunning Platforms

Stage Identities:  Creating a Platform or Space for Dialogue
ne Kaunsel

   Some people in the know have informed me that there is a whole other history for Diane Driedger’s collection of poems, The Mennonite Madonna, one of which I was not aware.

 Apparently, The Mennonite Madonna actually originated as a collection of performance poetry framing a 1997 Fringe Theatre performance by Driedger as the Mennonite Madonna and as her grandparents. 
    The greatest strength, in my opinion, of the art scene in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is that the scene is all about smashing boundaries – boundaries between the numerous historic and immigrant cultures that have together built the city, boundaries between tradition and new perspectives and boundaries between art forms.  Two of my favorite examples of the latter are the adaptation of Patrick Friesen’s poetry to both print and stage forms and Clive Holden’s multi-media Trains of Winnipeg.  (Though I am also tempted to include a phenomenal presentation of Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) accompanied by acoustic and jazz performers on the level of the Wyrd Sisters.)
    The Mennonite Madonna is a stage persona Driedger developed in response to the lack of a female divine in Mennonite culture and worship.  Searching for options and solutions, Driedger apparently looked to the Roman Catholic image of Mary, Mother of Christ, and to Mary's iconoclastic double – the pop performer Madonna who became a dominant force in pop culture by challenging traditional values and perceptions – possibly one of the first great Postmodern performers.
    So Driedger was trying to address her Mennonite heritage while creating space for the female voice, experience and perspective.  In so doing, I think that she needs to be congratulated for addressing these needs and experiences head on and in an apparently provocative manner.
  One of the greatest differences between the feminine Mennonite voice in Canada and that of the USA is that the USA voice often seems to be dominated by Amish romance novels and homey memoirs – a sort of Mennonite macklijchkjeit or Je’mietlijchkjeit, somewhat akin to the German Gemütlichkeit, often in a manner that seems directed outwards to non-Mennonites as a sort of advertisement for Amish country tourists.  As a social experiment at the Minnesota State Fair, a state with a significant awareness of Amish and Mennonite cultures, I asked several women who purchased Amish romance novels what it was that they found in Amish culture that was so intriguing – the responses varied only slightly between escapist romance, good traditional values, white magic (a homey, herbal connotation) and a love for antiques and the yesteryear.
    Knowing the Winnipeg Fringe Festival somewhat, I am pretty sure that Driedger’s performances probably moved beyond Je’mietlijchkjeit into a realm of speaking back to traditional perceptions of Mennonite culture (more in the spirit of fe'üasoake or to provoke) – both for her individual growth and the growth of the greater or grosse gemeinde.  I would definitely be glad to see photos or video of her performance.  Driedger titled her performance, “Dance the Mennonita:  A Shunning.” 
  One of the better known portrayals of “shunning” in the United States comes not from Mennonite culture but rather from the Mormon culture of the Rocky Mountain West – Latter Days (2003), directed by C. Jay Cox, wherein Elder Aaron Davis comes to grips with his latent homosexuality while on mission to Los Angeles.  Eventually Davis, played by Steve Sandvoss, is shunned by his family after being banned by the elders of his church.  The point is that in the movie, Sandvoss was only freed to embrace his identity after being banned (shunned) but was through that process, also freed to perceive his own culture with a critical eye and freed to speak directly and honestly back to that culture – and empowered within himself to be happy.  Being banned and shunned is normally perceived as being a negative experience and yet Cox found within it a process that can also be freeing and empowering.  I would perceive that this is perhaps the platform Driedger hoped to construct for her character, the Mennonite Madonna, vis-à-vis Mennonite culture – though this is merely conjecture on my part.
    Regardless, the title of Driedger’s book comes seemingly from both her stage persona and the spirit of her poetry – both are tied together in her identity and in her creative expression, hence The Mennonite Madonna – both aspects informing and supporting the other.

Note:  I would strongly recommend a trio of Cox’s films for those interested in exploring concepts of belonging, cultural adaptation or accommodation, shunning, assimilating, etc.:  Latter Days (2003), Sweet Home Alabama (2002), and New in Town (2009).  All three films take alleged outsiders and find a home for them -- though in three very different ways.
Latter Days, as per above, tells the story of a gay Mormon kid struggling to come of age while embracing his homosexuality, negotiating the abyss between the safe confines of the traditional Mormon community and the freer, more welcoming standards of Southern California, and ultimately, having to choose which aspects of his gay Mormon identity are appropriate for his life – and dealing with the consequences of those decisions.
Sweet Home Alabama is the story of a young fashion designer who made good after running out on a failing marriage to make her own life in New York City.  When the Mayor’s son asks her to marry him, she has to decide which culture she wants to belong to and how to integrate two apparently mutually-exclusive lives.  A comedy, Reese Witherspoon’s character judges and impacts those around her who are also attempting to build lives in the cultural environments to which they belong but did not necessarily choose.
New in Town, the most recent of the three, is the story of a young corporate executive sent from balmy Miami to frozen New Ulm, Minnesota (actually shot in Winnipeg), to manage a failing food processing plant.  Renée Zellweger’s character has to come to terms with being in a different world not used to either outsiders or women in charge. Zellweger has to learn to build cultural bridges and to find her spot in frozen rural Minnesota, a process that will change both Zellweger and the town in which she finds herself.

    Note:  This essay is built in part on personal correspondence.

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