It is strangely warm for a Christmas Eve but a crisp, wet winter wind periodically gusts through the outdoor courtyard of the Salvation Café. As the audience begins to trickle in, I find myself privy to their expectations. “I thought it was going to be later, Laurel never performs this early.” whines a local insider trying to explain to her friends why they haven’t time to drink before the performance.
“I thought it was inside. I didn’t dress warmly enough!” utters another disappointed audience member. “I heard Laurel’s crazy, she does her show naked!” stage-whispers a friend of mine, readying herself for an EXPERIENCE.
I begin to think about how low my expectations are. I mean, this is conservative Newport.
But wait, what’s going on? The place is beginning to buzz. People are asking the confused wait staff for extra chairs. I quickly make an approximate head count and am surprised to tally about fifty people huddling together against the chill. Spontaneously, an air of camaraderie develops. People go to their cars for blankets and extra sweaters to share, still others go to a nearby liquor store to fortify themselves with brandy and other belly warming beverages. The ambience begins to take on the feeling of an artsy version of an autumn twilight football game, it’s Al Fresco Theater.
Despite a rational attempt to ground myself, my expectations soar, and just as this energy spreads and everyone nestles down, in walks Laurel Casey, on cue, of course.
So begins our evening’s roller coaster ride, into the contradictory world of Laurel Casey’s search for our cumulative position in the universe. Having enjoyed reading her work, I am struck by the extra dimension added by her performance. This is not a competitive- “I have five minutes to get your attention and be as obnoxious as possible” poetry slam. It is a jazz artist’s dynamic use of spoken word, music, comedy, and audience participation.
Laurel’s relationship with her audience is that of an eccentric cousin, as she cajoles, evokes, interviews, advises, and in this case bribes us with expensive aperitifs (At this performance she brings two huge bottles of the best cognacs and fills our glasses if we’re quiet!”) We wince at her ability to dig up emotions we’d firmly planted in the sand, with eclectic interpretations of seemingly simple standards, (Side by Side, Tiptoe through the Tulips, and Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree.) She skids and coasts through ideas, observations, reflections, social and political satire, advice, and confession until we want to be her best friend. Honesty and vulnerability are rare and very attractive.
Suddenly I understand why Laurel is “politically incorrect.” It is convenient for people who need to hear her and take responsibility for creating a world where she doesn’t fit- to dismiss her as angry and crazy. Collectively we make it impossible for her to question the ideals and role models we have created. By boxing her work into a pretty package marked “inappropriate” we handily divest ourselves of any obligations of reflection, or, God Forbid, change.
William Gass, in his Atlantic Monthly essay, “The Shears of the Censor” wrote, “The self censors itself because it does not want to receive or inflict pain. The truth, of course, is a casualty.”
Laurel Casey does not believe in censorship, which is why she is considered a “loose cannon.” Instead, she is two skilled artists in one. She’s a writer, penning insightful anecdotes and essays that resonate with the rusty taste of anguish, but then she is able to improvise these texts “on her feet”, like a jazz musician.
It is evening’s end, and Laurel sings “Lush Life” in a smooth, luscious contralto. No one wants to leave and they say so. “We’re going to catch pneumonia when we sober up.” She warns. Everyone laughs as she goes into a story about planting a rose garden with her daughter a week before an eviction notice. The laughter turns to pensive sadness as Laurel sings “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”
Photo: Laurel and Susan
-Sue Lamond, Owner, Salvation Cafe, Newport RI