The first downtown Mardi Gras marching group meet-up: What does it mean?

Anyone in attendance would agree, the Thursday (Jan. 12) "Meeting of the Downtown Carnival Courts" was a tad confusing from the start. But despite the incoherence, a spirit of happy unanimity swiftly arose.

A dozen leaders of downtown do-it-yourself Mardi Gras parades and marching groups, including The Golddigger Babydolls social aid and pleasure club, The Society of Saint Anne, Krewe du Vieux, 'tit Rex, Krewe de Jeanne d'Arc, The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, and the New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies gathered at a St. Claude Avenue art gallery to celebrate the 2017 parading season.

It was a first.

The costumed group stood in a semi-circle as poet and master of ceremonies Chuck Perkins led introductions. To the left were leaders of groups that had been around for decades. The Krewe du Vieux first marched in 1987, the Society of Saint Anne formed in 1969, and baby doll-style costuming started more than a half-century before that. To the right of the stage stood the newcomers, whose groups had popped up in the years since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"This is kind of like the beginning of this thing finally starting to blossom," Perkins said of the downtown Mardi Gras scene. "So we've got all of these old school Mardi Gras krewes that have been down for years, and then we have the new kids on the block. The new cats come and they add their own flair."

Of course, a perusal of the NOLA.com comment stream will tell you that not everyone appreciates the changes to Carnival custom that the new cats represent.

 

Despite their popularity, the new krewes have sometimes come under criticism for doing things their own way. The satirical 'tit Rex marching group, which formed in 2008, got into hot water for appropriating the name of the venerable Rex parade.  The Krewe de Jeanne d'Arc, which first marched in 2009, displeased some onlookers by causing an older organization to give up its exclusive claim to the Jan. 6 starting date of the Carnival season (which is also Joan of Arc's birthday). And the rambling Chewbacchus parade, which formed in 2010, has caused consternation for its sprawl and assertiveness.

 

For some, the newness of the above-mentioned parades is symbolic of the newness of some of the post-Katrina population. You'll hear it said that these parades are the province of hipsters and cultural interlopers. But Perkins headed off the argument with historical perspective.

"Listen, " Perkins intoned, "if you know anything about the history of New Orleans, regardless of what it is that you think, it's a city, it's a port city, and it's always been having some new blood, new people bringing new things. So, what we see happening right now ain't no different, it's all good, you know."

Between the representatives of the old school krewes and the new kids, sat a young man splendidly costumed as Alexander the Great upon a golden throne.

What, you ask, does Alexander the Great have to do with downtown parading groups? Well, nothing really. Artist and author Morgan Molthrop dreamed up an imaginary scenario in which the youthful conqueror of the ancient world visited New Orleans, where, like so many tourists, he soaked up the neoclassical architecture, the multiculturalism and general hedonism.

Molthrop erected an Alexander-esque campaign tent in the center of the gallery and found young men who fit the bill as Alexander and his entourage to wander the opening reception party. Jeanne Nathan, the director of the Creative Alliance of New Orleans arts advocacy organization, suggested splicing the meeting of the downtown Carnival courts onto Molthrop's show for synergy's sake and he agreed.

Given a few minutes to appreciate that the Alexander the Great exhibit was more or less unrelated to the meeting of the downtown Carnival courts, it all made perfect sense... by New Orleans standards.

In the end, everyone toasted with plastic cups, Alexander danced and the party proceeded into the night.

The first downtown Mardi Gras marching group meet-up - Ryan Ballard of Chewbacchus and Caesar Meadows of 'tit RexThe first downtown Mardi Gras marching group meet-up - Ryan Ballard of Chewbacchus and Caesar Meadows of 'tit Rex  

That would be the end of the story, except Thursday's gathering provoked questions about the definition of a downtown Mardi Gras. We can agree this is a part of Mardi Gras that largely does not take place on well-worn St. Charles Avenue route. We may be able to agree that, in general, the participants tend to favor self-styled, often hand-made costuming. We may be able able to agree that though the downtown krewes are societies, they don't include the high-society aspects of other parts of Mardi Gras. And it may be fair to say that most of these groups represent a unique point of view: science fiction, Joan of Arc, miniaturization ('tit Rex is a shoe box float parade).  

But is there a downtown Mardi Gras that is defined by something other than geography? Is there a new Mardi Gras aesthetic that differs from an old Mardi Gras aesthetic? Is there a 21st-century Mardi Gras with a different meaning than the Mardi Gras that came before? Is it the future?