part one of a series by Hilary Bryant
“CANNON FIRE! CANNON FIRE!” These words ring out across the entryway to the faire – both a warning (plug your ears, folks) and a proud invitation. With a singular and emphatic BOOM, it begins. Music plays, gentle and lively. Excited cries from vendors layer on top of one another. People scurry through the gate – some clad in cargo shorts, sneakers, and ball caps, others in gowns and doublets so exquisitely tailored and trimmed that you cannot help but gaze in total awe. Also… there are Stormtroopers in kilts. There is a lot going on here.
A Renaissance Festival is many things to many people. Just about every kind of person, in fact. What started out in Southern California as a small bit of countercultural rebellion has grown into a rather mainstream phenomenon. RenFaire culture is a convergence of many (often contradictory) ideas: traditional historical reenactment combines with fantasy and lore; family friendly entertainment plays out alongside chainmaille and alcohol-fueled debauchery. Here, it seems, everyone is welcome – the history buffs, the geeks, the goths, the young conservative families, the old hippies, the capitalists….. Hail and well met to all!
A tiny word that carries real weight. The idea of “all” has been on the minds and hearts of people across the country this year. At the height of COVID-19, phrases like “We are all in this together” made constant appearances in commercials, political speeches, and virtual gatherings. In the aftermath of the long due racial reckoning and Black Lives Matter protests this summer, the idea of “liberty and justice for all” has been called into sharp question. Now, with the destruction of recent hurricanes and wildfires, we are once again reminded that we all call this single, aching planet home.
As the year 2020 keeps throwing curveball after curveball, Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) are hit hardest at every turn. Black people are disproportionately at risk for contracting COVID; Native and Indigenous peoples were not provided the same safety nets financially as other members of the country; migrant workers continued to harvest during the historic wildfires on the West Coast, working in extremely dangerous conditions for very little pay.
This is the world we live in, even as we lace up our beautiful corsets and chomp on our delicious turkey legs, and we have to talk about it. Each and every community (even the ones where fox tails and elf ears are commonplace) has to talk about it – to lay down assumptions and seek to learn, understand, and grow.
Which brings us here, to the series of illuminating conversations we had with BIPOC Renaissance Festival participants across the country – an incredibly cool and insightful gathering of performers who were willing to share their experiences. Here are our takeaways:
“I think educating and normalizing diversity is key. Especially because so many shows are vendor focused- it’s an incredible opportunity to talk about the Silk Road and the diversity of the cultures found across it. It’s also important, from a casting stand point, to have a diverse and varied court. Nobles from all over would travel to different courts- this is nothing new. Diplomats from other countries would have also been present among the nobility. If we start portraying more than just a single stereotypical English archetype within the court and within the village, we also open up opportunities to cross-promote as well, drawing more patrons to different shows. It’s a wellspring of opportunity that is being overlooked because of the inability to see beyond whiteness.” -Vivian
Let’s just get it out there, in the open: Renaissance Festivals are white as hell. They present a fun, romantic, and almost entirely Euro-centric vision of this time period. From the historical figures (Henry the VIII and his wives) to the fantasy elements (Robin Hood and his Merry Men), almost every character you would anticipate meeting at a RenFaire stems from Anglo-European history and lore. This often leaves BIPOC performers to fend for themselves creatively, and these are not always easy waters to chart. No matter what costume they end up wearing, they are going to have to negotiate with other people’s expectations and perceptions, and sometimes outright prejudice.
Because RenFaires (and cinema and literature and on and on) have largely focused on less-than-diverse versions of history and storytelling, casting them in ways an audience will “buy” becomes a conversation.
Right out of the gate, almost any Black person will be assumed a ‘Moor’. Thanks, Othello! While the Moorish conquest of Spain does provide a rich historical well to draw from, it has become a pretty tired trope for many performers of color. Beyond that, some interviewees expressed a suspicion that the designation reflects a more covert and sinister intention. As Michelle puts it, “A lot of people assume because you are Black you are a Moor. Personally, we now (maybe six of us) take it to mean something else. They can’t say what they want to say, so they say that. So, what we do now is we actually try to use the word to educate people – what Moors actually mean: they were black and white, that Mauritania is an actual place in Africa right now; it outlasted a lot of other cultures… and to me, that is putting someone in their place because they assume that you don’t know what you are representing.”
People of color are also often automatically relegated to some sort of fantasy role, like a fairy or barbarian or witch doctor. Sometimes this works beautifully and is a true expression of the actor’s talents. Other times, it can feel like laziness; it plays into the “Magical Minority” narrative that is so pervasive in Western popular culture. Twin sisters Monique and Monae talked about struggling with whether it was worth asking to be placed somewhere else after playing fairies for three years; would their skin color be a barrier to branching out?
Should the performer reject fairy wings or satyr horns and choose to develop a character more grounded in reality, then they’d better be ready to provide sufficient justification for their existence in this (imaginary) world. There is an inherent double standard here: while white participants and patrons are able to gleefully play with historical anachronism (Again….Stormtroopers in a Kilts!), BIPOC participants must be intellectually ready to disarm other cast members and patrons who will inevitably question their choices, their portrayal, or their authenticity, which is absurd and frustrating because “historical accuracy” should not be placed above a performer’s creativity or a human’s dignity when it comes to race and ethnicity. It is also frustrating and absurd because, and this cannot be stressed enough, people of color existed during these time periods, “and no, they weren’t all slaves or savages just passing through. There’s the Moorish conquest of Spain, the alignment of political power with Antony and Cleopatra, ocean-based trade, and colonization with Asia and Africa. Historically, people of color went everywhere!” – Ordo
In a phenomenal and enlightening blog post on the excellent site Black Nerd Problems entitled, “Yes, There Were Black People in Renaissance Europe,” author L.E.H. Light writes a letter to her younger, newbie faire self: “dear self, insist on being Black, not color-blind, not white with a tan. Wear yellow and orange and red with a headwrap and bright jewelry. When people ask if you’re a Nubian, and they will, laugh and correct them. Explode their assumptions and enjoy every moment of it. Learn and play and teach all weekend then go back to your day-to-day exhausted, but looking forward to the next weekend. It is as much fun as it seems, and there are more of us out here than you think.”
And just to make it even more fun (sarcasm intended) for a POC cast member, it will frequently be assumed and implied that they are serving class; several of the participants we interviewed relayed stories of being asked if they were slaves of the kings and queens nearby.
Truly, though, the placement of non-white actors is vital and deserves attention, especially when the cast is not particularly diverse to begin with. “An important thing that I have noticed and will continue to point out is that in the last two and half decades [of attending and participating in Faires], I haven’t seen anyone who is brown or having a skin color similar to mine above the rank of a peasant or a servant. That matters.” -Tre
Representation does matter, and it matters to POC on both sides of the gate, participants and patrons alike. Across the board, every single person we spoke to for this piece brought up the question of safety in some shape or form, both as a feeling and a physical reality. Monique and Monae, who played fairies, talked about parents pulling them aside to find out “Could my daughters do this? Is it a safe place for them here?” Trou added, “They want to say it without having to say IT.” Tre recounted an incident when he was called to the front gate by the staff of the festival, where he was playing a guard at the time. “This may be kind of awkward,” they said, “but we need your assistance,” and led him to a family of color on the other side of the gate. “So I get to the front to see the family – the kids are there, the parents are there and they are literally like ‘There is not a single soul here who looks like us. Is this a safe place?‘ The kids were a little freaked out,” he said. “They are looking around and seeing all these people who look nothing like them, wearing armor and carrying weapons. They needed reassurance.” So he talked with them, walked with them, and showed them around; they had a wonderful day, but (as he pointed out) what if he hadn’t been called? What if their concerns hadn’t been taken seriously or treated sensitively? “That family would have turned around and never come back. Ever.” He has been called in to help handle a situation like this three separate times.
“Is it safe for me here?”
It appears to be a question that never really goes away, it merely shifts from the forefront of one’s mind to the background. One participant describes a kind of constant, humming personal effort to stay aware of the people around you, and what their degree of tolerance might be. “You learn where not to go, what people not to talk to and interact with, what all the patches mean…” She told us about the feelings of discomfort when she saw a group of fairly visible and unapologetic white supremacists roaming the grounds: “You just make yourself smaller, you try to avoid.”
Simply put: patrons of color may struggle to simply enjoy the faire, and participants of color may struggle to engage with their work in ways they would find optimal, because some part of their energies must be directed to concerns of personal safety. As Tre puts it, “There is that… acknowledgement of why this is awkward or different. The parents know why this is a situation, we know why this is a situation. The people who asked me to help know why there is a situation. We all know that there are a million variables in America that led to this being a situation.“
Trou told us about a patron interaction that sticks out in her mind – she was playing a French noblewoman, the only person of color in her court. A man, upon seeing her, declared, “Oh, I see they brought us someone to hunt!”
Yes, you read that right.
“I was like,Woah!” she says, “It stops you for a minute. You’re like ‘Ok well, I can’t break character, because I want to be professional, but this person is being creepy so I’m just gonna… slowly back away.’ That gets tiring – if you have that at the start of your day, every other interaction gets harder. It wears on you. It makes you feel uncomfortable to be in your own skin, because.. I can’t take this off. I can’t stop being brown, and you can’t stop to educate everyone. It’s a very weird position to be in- if you stop [being in character] you destroy the magic for the other person and you destroy the magic for yourself.“
And that, really, is what it is all about, isn’t it? There is an undeniable magic that draws people of all kinds to the world of Renaissance Festivals. There is a deeper invitation at the heart of them, not only to explore a world that is long past, but the world that exists inside your own imagination. An invitation to express yourself more fully, to play in possibility. In 2020, it is important to remember that imagination is more than a by-product of “fantasy,” but a powerful tool in creating meaningful change. That change doesn’t start in one place, it starts in all places, including the well-trodden paths of our favorite faires.
Magic and imagination were certainly present in the story told by Michelle and her son, Tre. They are the founders of the highly popular Ottoman Encampment at Florida Renaissance Festival. They felt inspired to create this world within a world, “but our first year, we were nervous, because… we are Black and representing this culture.” That culture being largely Turkish, for which, as Tre charmingly and devilishly points out, “Black is not the look!” One day on the path, they greeted a family in Turkish as they always did, but this time they got Turkish back. This family, who had immigrated from Turkey, was delighted to hear people speaking in their native tongue. “They were all so happy about it – the kids were super happy about it, the parents were happy about it. The grandmother was only speaking Turkish, and she started crying because she had never seen her culture represented and hadn’t seen these kinds of clothes in decades. She had immigrated 30 or 40 years ago and has not seen this represented anywhere. The greatest thing was that the color of our skin did not matter – it was the culture that was represented. We were just three people walking down a path, but simply representing a culture was a huge impact.“
Which brings us back to “all.” What we all want, what we all deserve, what we all can do to ensure that history, safety, and imagination are each explored to reach their most expansive possibilities. ‘Accuracy’ is not always a representation of what is true at the deepest and loveliest levels of the human spirit. A Renaissance Festival should first and foremost be a place where everyone can seek to find the fullest, best, weirdest, most beautiful version of themselves. As Trou so perfectly says, “As soon as someone sees themselves in you, it’s worth it.”
Hail and well met, All.
Part two of our series, Diversity in the Realm, will delve into experiences POC have had within the participant, Rennie culture (coming December 1, 2020)
Hilary Bryant is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She uses her perspective as a storyteller to explore what is beautiful, weird, and hard about being a human. Past and current projects include comedies about dating a war veteran with PTSD (Love and War) and a modern “Mary Poppins-esque” series about a young divorcee processing the end of her marriage (Aftering). She is the co-host and producer of Cereal Bowl, a popular variety show in LA that highlights and brings together some very cool, very talented people! She loves loves coffee and wine and kombucha (basically all beverages) and is the proud dog mom to the cutest girl in the whole world, Maizy – she will fight you about that.
Cover photo by Michael Ulrich