On a recent Friday, I attended a performance of MAKE/BELIEVE by Saxapahaw-based nonprofit, Culture Mill. Eager to be on time, I left the office early to make my way from Durham to Graham for the 5pm start time. I’m a frequent attendee of Culture Mill’s summertime series “Trust the Bus,” wherein passengers climb onto a Bluebird school bus and are transported to a surprise location for an undisclosed art performance. MAKE/BELIEVE is a new hybrid version of this approach. Half of the audience began with a walking tour of downtown Graham, and half were transported on the bus from Saxapahaw.
As I rolled through Graham’s version of rush hour traffic, it occurred to me that there are only about three blocks in between “where is this place?” and “oh, I’m literally in the middle of the town now.” Traffic was bustling for a small town, but I was able to swing into a parking spot directly in front of Press Coffee & Crepes, where I had arranged to meet a friend before the performance. Press has a surprisingly lush interior and a distinctly hipster vibe. From a late cold spell, we had tumbled straight into blistering Carolina summer, which hit hardest that afternoon, and the café’s cool, dark interior was a welcome relief.
As five o’clock drew closer, we wandered out into the still-searing sunlight and made our way around a traffic circle which encompassed an extremely stately courthouse—clearly the center of civic activity around these parts. We passed by the unmistakable Dana Marks, Managing Director of Little Green Pig and well-known local actor and musician, lounging on a bench in a black evening gown. I gave her a big grin and wave, but ever the consummate professional, she remained stern-faced and unaffected. We realized that we had made our way to the southwest corner of the circle, and not the specified southeast corner, so we crossed at a highly official looking crosswalk, exaggerated in scale considering the small road and minimal traffic it officiates. But I got that impression about a lot of Graham—that it has been laid down in excess, as if someone was planning something.
We joined the small crowd milling about outside of a shuttered storefront and were checked off a list by Lauren Monroe, Culture Mill staff and production manager for MAKE/BELIEVE. The heat was stifling, and I broke out a cheap folding fan. This was not my first Culture Mill rodeo. Their performances have always been enjoyable, but rarely air-conditioned. At one past event the heat was so terrible, bags of ice were distributed to those deemed elderly or infirm. I came prepared.
After a time, Lauren directed us around a corner, to where dancer and Co-Director Murielle Elizéon stood on a folding chair in a gravel lot, wearing a black satin evening gown. She beckoned us with her arms to gather around. “Closer” she said. “Closer, closer… Not too close!” she chastened suddenly, eliciting quiet laughter as she threw up her hands. She gently invited us now, “before we begin,” she said, to take exactly one minute to turn exactly 360 degrees and notice everything around us. With the rest of the group, I rotated slowly, overestimating the length of a minute in my head. As we circled, she spoke to us about place. What is a place? What is this place? If a place is composed of the people there, what effect are we having right at this very moment? As we came around again, she asked us to actively “notice” and to point to anything we noticed in particular. She raised her hand and pointed slowly, gracefully, and directly at me. I had stepped slowly back from the crowd in order to snap a surreptitious picture and was caught! She smiled though and pointed with her other hand towards the courthouse. We moved on.
Arms outstretched as if beckoning us along with her like little ducklings, she led us back around the traffic circle. We passed an old brick building and she invited us by wordless example to come up and lay a hand upon the wall. Stepping into the generous crosswalk, she guided us to the courthouse steps, where she prostrated herself for a moment on the warm concrete. One man, inspired by the brick-touching exercise, reached down and placed his hand on the concrete as well. Elizéon rose up and invited us to close our eyes and focus our attention on the shaded northwest corner of the block, where cellist Shana Tucker was seated and began to serenade us. The music was beautiful, but the audience stood facing directly into the sun, and the fear that my cheeks might actually burst into flames became somewhat of a distraction.
Still shepherded by Elizéon, we forged through traffic again, strolling past a local restaurant patio, where we were observed with polite amusement by the locals, and with unabashed curiosity by the children, who loudly asked “who are they?!” “I think they’re on some kind of tour” shushed the parents. I wanted to lean over and whisper “don’t worry… it’s art”; a panacea of a statement which always seems to both calm fears and end inquiry.
We paused again, waiting obediently for a moment until we were beckoned forward. As we walked, the Culture Mill bus pulled up beside us in a sunny gravel lot overlooked by a lofted warehouse space. The bus doors opened, and as the guests who had arrived by bus joined us in the lot, a disembodied voice began humorously narrating the scene from a speaker in the corner. “The crowd turns. Who are these people from the bus? Where is this incredibly talented man that is speaking to them?” the voice said.
A moment later a pair of barn doors in the warehouse loft overlooking the lot opened up, and a tall man in a tuxedo revealed himself. Patience, an actor known for work with Little Green Pig (among other projects) spoke poetically to the crowd about the history of the building, which had been used for various types of agricultural auctions. He talked about “value” and “place” and “history,” as well as the buying and selling and assigning of value. He referenced but slid obliquely past the topic of the buying and selling of people. There were also a few comical moments as he answered his cell phone or spoke to an individual offstage. These interludes eased the somewhat ridiculous spectacle of several dozen people standing in a hot parking lot staring up at a guy in a tuxedo waxing poetic about tobacco farming.
As his remarks came to a close, two small children in formal wear, like mischievous elves, appeared behind us and beckoned us to follow them. They dashed ahead impatiently, waiting just long enough so as not to lose us. We circled the building and headed up a flight of decrepit stairs to a wide open room with a few rows of folding chairs. Lauren and Dana offered us water and paper fans (a nod to the intense heat that followed us as we settle into the space). I responded to the offer of a fan by brandishing my own. Dana laughed, “You’re a smartie!” As we took our seats Dana continued this banter with the audience, but as we settled in, her teasing and questioning morphed into a sort of stylized auction.
In a row facing the audience, Patience (now drumming) was seated next to Tommy Noonan (soon dancing), and Tarish “Jeghetto” Pipkins sat next to his trademark marionette, followed by Murielle Elizéon and Shana Tucker. Lined up in front of us, each stood and performed in turn as Marks called them out. Meanwhile she exhorted the audience “five dollars? Ten? Do I hear fifteen?” As she spoke, she wasn’t just auctioning the performances, though; she was auctioning the concept of art. “Okay Shana, play that cello in the real-est, most authentic way possible!” Dana chanted to us over and over “Is it real? Is it worth it? Do you buy it?!” Will you buy it, she asked but also—do you believe it? Do you buy into it? I couldn’t help but remember that this was a free performance. What did she mean? What was being asked of us, if not money? The auction ended dramatically at $200. It was unclear what transaction had taken place.
Noonan then launched into a spoken word piece, with accompaniment from Tucker. The heat had started to fade and his voice and Tucker’s cello were hypnotic, as he spoke about the history of Graham and of past generations working in the fields. He painted a nostalgic picture, not idealized so much, but detailed, real, and very much a picture of a lifestyle that has passed away.
After Noonan finished his piece, the performers filed out while the crowd sat for a moment looking about wondering “is this it?” until the two children from earlier reappeared. They beckoned us down the stairs, miming impatiently as if to say “What’s the holdup? Come on guys!” Back out on the street, the performers posed on the other side of the road, giving us a moment for applause before disappearing into the scenery. I couldn’t help but notice the looks on the faces of the folks driving between us, the audience on the west side, and the formal-wear clad performers on the east. Half a dozen vehicles drove slowly through, visibly noticing, looking from side to side, and tilting their heads in confusion. Again, I wanted to whisper to them “Don’t worry, it’s just art”.
Stuck in that dreamy post-performance haze, and not quite ready to return to the real world, I walked back towards the coffee shop where I had started and opted for Fitzgerald and Faulkner, a cocktail bar located upstairs. As I wrote up my notes on the performance, I listened to the bartender’s banter about Michelin Stars and fine wines and obscure garnishes. They seemed to be lifelong service industry types, the kind with copious tattoos and very specific opinions about foie gras. I asked them what they thought of Graham. They said they love it; they think it’s the next big thing. I had to ask if they were from Graham. Not at all; they were from Florida and Asheboro respectively. I asked them if anyone was actually from Graham. Oh no, they said, not anyone that comes in here, anyway.
I was reminded of Murielle’s musings from earlier. What is a place? What effect are we having right at this very moment?