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Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009

All the City's a Stage

Milwaukee People’s Parade

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We asked two questions,” explains Jeff Holub, “‘What are your hopes?’ and, ‘what is that which you fear the most?’”

It’s a hot, late July afternoon, and the leased industrial space on West Clybourn Avenue is a sweaty forge of fantasia. An intergenerational aggregation of artists are fervently immersed in their work, tightening wheels, painting props and sewing costumes in preparation for the All-City People’s Parade and Pageant, to be held Saturday, Aug. 8 in Washington Park.

Lead artist Holub breaks away from a group applying papier-mache layers to a 10-foot-tall mask to give me a short tour. Like everyone else here, he’s visibly fatigued, and with good reason—the hundreds of volunteers have been at work for weeks giving genesis to a truly Herculean undertaking: transforming the hopes and fears of an entire metropolis into a living piece of communal expression. A collaborative effort between Milwaukee Public Theatre and Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theater, the All-City People’s Parade is more a narrative than a traditional march of random curiosities. Holub leads me to a cinder-block wall, where the storyboard unfolds across the expanse of the warehouse.

“It begins with fear,” he says. Listening sessions across the city identified violence, hunger, unemployment, poverty and pollution as chief concerns dismaying the public. A mammoth trash can inviting people to “dispose of your problems here” leads the procession, but the way is blocked by a “Band of Villains” representing selfishness, predatory behavior, trickery and greed. Skirting along the perimeter of the workshop, the completed representations of our collective anxieties lurk in dark corners, ascend dimly lit stairwells and hang ominously from the rafters. The masks and costumes range from the slightly unnerving to the truly macabre.

Manifestations of disquiet abound. Halfway through Holub’s presentation, I’m also sweating, not just from the heat, but from a palpable sense of impending doom. I’ll be looking over both shoulders on the walk back to my vehicle. Perhaps noticing my darting looks, Holub quickly continues his synopsis, explaining that following the unsettling beginning, the parade “looks to the way forward.”

Subsequent acts titled “Toward an Economy of Lasting Value, Toward Harmony in Our Neighborhoods” and “Our Choices Grow the World” offer organic, communal expressions of hope, followed by a cheerful coda, “Yes We Can-Can,” wherein the people are freed from their burdens by the power of community.

Much relieved, I circulate once more among groups of excited school children working under the eye of puppet-master Max Samson, the founder and artistic director of Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre. Samson has been using puppets theatrically since the early 1970s in New York City, and has toured internationally with his Heavy Bulky Puppet Theater, founded in Israel in 1973. It would not be hyperbole to claim that Samson is preoccupied with our inner apprehensive nature. Local audiences may recall his 2005 presentation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial at Bucketworks, or last years musical The Ballad of Joseph K. at Vogel Hall, both of which employed puppets to convey the protagonist’s unfortunately correct assumption that there are indeed forces aligned against him.

This time, happily, Samson is offering a glimmer of hope. Saturday’s 11 a.m. parade concludes with can-can dancers, a children’s orchestra and a Jubilation Choir, followed by a festive 12:30 p.m. pageant at the Washington Park Bandshell. The 1 p.m. Landfare event is at once a community picnic, information fair and community resource festival. Preceding all of the above, Milwaukee’s youth will deliver artistic and spoken messages of peace in the 11 a.m. Friday Visions of Peace Parade, which proceeds down Holton Avenue from Pierce School to Kasdish-Kilbourn Park.

Community theater taken to a new level, The All-City People’s Parade and Pageant is a one-of-a-kind event offering catharsis and hope to a populace struggling with very real issues of survival and perseverance in increasingly troubled times.