Jasmyn Brielle's photo essay reflects on the creation of "Let Me Ascertain You: Hormones," an interview-based cabaret curated by Civilians R&D Group Members Chris Tyler, Simone Wolff and Kit Yan.
When Ben Kamine and I were asked to curate the December 2015 edition of Let Me Ascertain You, the Civilians’s cabaret series at Joe’s Pub, we knew right away what we didn’t want to focus on: Christmas. The idea of a Christmas cabaret was overdone. We had nothing to say about Christmas that hadn’t been said a zillion times before. We weren’t interested. Just because December has become a full month of all-Christmas-all-the-time didn’t mean we were somehow obligated to make it the center of our cabaret. And besides, we’re both Jewish. So we most definitely weren’t going to do an evening about Christmas. No way, no how. [Confident nods.]
It turned out we did have something to say about Christmas’s takeover of the month of December. It turned out we were really interested in the narratives of people who were alienated by Christmas, who stood outside the mainstream obsession with red and green, who weren’t reflected in the endless stream of Christmas music pervading the malls of America. It turned out we wanted to hear stories from Muslims, from Buddhists, from Hindus, from Jews and atheists and Pagans and everyone else for whom Christmas is someone else’s special day.
So we sent out the Field Research team to collect interviews. These intrepid folk roamed far and wide, making cold calls, using tenuous connections, exploiting their own friends and family to bring us raw material.
We heard about tension between Christmas and other winter holidays. We heard about a Jewish boy who believed he didn’t get presents from Santa because Santa was an anti-Semite. We heard about alienation and isolation. We heard about the relentless commercialization of the season. We heard about Christian children telling non-Christians that they were going to hell. We heard about various struggles for inclusivity when Nativity scenes or Christmas trees were displayed in government buildings. These were the gripes and frustrations we’d expected.
But we also heard about Muslim families who loved decorating their house with light in the dead of winter. We heard about the Christmas songs various people loved as well as the ones they hated (The Little Drummer Boy was mentioned on both fronts). We heard about little Jewish girls stealing discarded Christmas trees off the streets of New York and bringing them home (and being forced to drag them back out to the corner again). We heard about Hindu children teaching their immigrant parents to put a peppermint stick in hot chocolate, with no idea that Christmas was a religious occasion. We heard over and over again about spending time with family. We heard about the compromises parents — and whole communities — made to please their children, to keep them from feeling left out.
Some stories cried out to be told in song. We gave these interviews to a bunch of brilliant composers (or composer/lyricist teams): Michael Friedman; Andrea Grody; Erato A. Kremmyda and Maggie-Kate Coleman; Grace McLean; Julia Meinwald and Gordon Leary; Kamala Sankaram; and Tidtaya Sinutoke and Ty Defoe.
Other stories will appear in monologue form, cut and shaped from an hour of raw material into a two or three minute piece. And in a great moment of synergy, our pursuit of the composer of the viral hit Chinese Food on Christmas resulted in not just an interview, but permission to use the song itself.
We’re still putting the finishing touches on the evening, but I feel confident promising you a delightful evening at Joe’s Pub — and a very nontraditional Christmas Cabaret: “War on Christmas.”
“Let Me Ascertain You: War on Christmas” played Joe’s Pub on Tuesday, December 8, at 10 p.m.