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On Being Miss Chant, Claude and Minnie
Cameron Art Museum
3201 S. 17th St.
Sun., April 14th • 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
$30-50 •

Tony Rivenbark in Claude Howell’s living space recreated in CAM’s latest exhibit. Courtesy photo

Tony Rivenbark in Claude Howell’s living space recreated in CAM’s latest exhibit. Courtesy photo

The site-specific performance series “On Being Miss Chant, Claude and Minnie” at the Cameron Art Museum, as part of the “From Gatehouse to Winehouse: Inside the Artist’s Workplace: Minnie Evans, Elisabeth Chant and Claude Howell” exhibit, is, quite simply, an extraordinary experience. Part theatre, part living history, part art appreciation, it is all heart. For me, it was a roller coaster ride of emotions and connections.

Limited to 20 audience members, “On Being Miss Chant, Claude and Minnie” is startlingly intimate. The sites consist of the winehouse on Cottage Lane that Elizabeth Chant lived and taught from during her time in Wilmington; Claude Howell’s apartment; and Minnie Evans’ gatehouse at Airlie Gardens, all of which were reproduced in the Cameron Art Museum during its 50th anniversary. The exhibit, which closes next week, is worth a trip out to the museum. The construction of three structures and the detailed recreation of their interiors is beautifully executed, and one can easily see how the installations would be inspiring for artists and performers.

Moving in chronological order, the program begins in Chant’s winehouse cottage where the audience is greeted by actress Cynthia Rogers standing in front of a painting of Chant—one of which looks like she stepped out. Chestnut hair curled up in Princess Leia-style buns at her ears, with a ribbon circling her forehead, and in a kimono, one can just imagine the stir Chant must have made stepping off the train at the station in the 1920s! Rogers projects a quiet other-worldliness that brings us Chant across time and space as not just an artist and a teacher but also a preoccupied mystic.

It’s not over-the-top, it’s just a statement of facts that she leads a double life, with nightly astral travels to King Arthur’s court. It took a certain amount of backbone for her to break away from a family that had committed her to an asylum. Make no mistake, underneath Rogers’ kindness is a will of steel that one would not want to go up against. I bet she was not only an inspiring teacher but a demanding one as well. Even if she spends her nights with King Arthur, her daytime world centers around a wonderful group of people who keep her excited and engaged. She is a teacher with gifted students, one of whom she would like us to meet: a youngster named Claude Howell.

Gliding like a shade from another plane, she leads the audience to Howell’s apartment door and knocks. It’s so simple and unpretentious, it just radiates loveliness.

In spite of his credentials as a consummate performer, Tony Rivenbark chose not to actually portray Claude Howell, because, as he told the audience, “No one can produce Claude’s voice. No one can get that molasses…” Nonetheless, in a meticulously researched and prepared piece, he greets the audience in Howell’s apartment, dresses in Howell’s clothes, and talks about the experience of knowing Howell for most of his adult life.

Rivenbark met the artist as a college student when Howell was on the faculty of the Art Department of UNCW. They remained close until Howell’s death in the mid 1990s. I could think of no one better to give voice to the icon. Besides discussing the salon that Howell created in his home, which was the incubator for much of the artistic and cultural growth in the area, Rivenbark points out extensive and meticulous journals that Howell kept about his life and the goings-on in our community.

“Apparently I am mentioned over 200 times, at least!” Rivenbark noted with some pleasure. “When people die there is this response to say, ‘I wish I had spent more time.’ But looking through the journals, I realize I spent a lot of time with Claude.”

He quotes several passages about Howell missing dinner because Rivenbark had shown up for drinks and stayed all night. Howell was well aware of Rivenbark’s obsession or “one-track mind,” as he describes it in the journals, meaning Rivenbark would want to talk about Thalian Hall for hours.

I personally consider it a privilege to have known Rivenbark most of my life, and it is not an aspersion to say he is married to Thalian Hall. We would not have it as the crown jewel of this city were it not for his personal drive and determination. But I have never seen him so excited and filled with such glee to talk about anything other than Thalian Hall until his performance as Howell.

The true personal fulfillment he received by revisiting with his old friend for a few minutes with some strangers and some acquaintances is evident in every joyously animated cell of his being. It’s not a surprise. Claude Howell stories abound, and most people who knew the artist light up at the chance to talk about him. That says a lot about the way he lived his life.

Rivenbark ends with a look out the window before turning back to the audience. “Well, it’s spring,” he says. “I bet the azaleas are blooming at Airlie Gardens and Minnie Evans is waiting for you at the gatehouse.”

With that, the audience is waved out of the apartment and around the corner.

Joyce Grear’s portrayal of Minnie Evans is achingly beautiful. The pain, the confusion, the mystical madness that drove Evans all come pouring through with tears streaming down Grear’s cheeks. She recounts a life that few would believe—least of all, it seems, Evans herself.

Living history performance is not new for Grear. Folks shouldn’t miss her performance of the life of Harriet Tubman, should they have a chance. With Chant, the challenge was to show the world of Wilmington in the 1920s. With Howell, it was to remind people of life here not that long ago. But with Evans, Grear has to take audiences into the life of African Americans in our area, and compress what spans from the late 19th century to the late 1980s. People know what a ship’s captain does (Chant’s father), but what’s a sounder? Evans was a sounder, one who sold shellfish from door to door, in the early 1900s.

With a shy smile of wonderment, Grear recounts the mirror images of the rugs in the Pembroke Jones’ mansions, where Evans and her husband became employed: “With a line right down the middle and everything just alike on both sides!” It was a motif that Evans would come back to repeatedly in her work. She greets the audience from inside the gatehouse, looking out the window and waving. When everyone is seated, she comes around to the side of the building. She makes close, personal contact, describing powerful experiences not only palpable, but the immediacy becomes real wiuth the overpowering nature of the experiences.

Grear presents the real battle that Evans faced to her life’s work, and with a frankness and concern that touches on the family’s worry of Evans being crazy. It culminates when her husband tries to take away her art supplies. It takes a performer with great insight to touch on an issue of that magnitude, one that can be so terrifying and crippling for a family, all without getting lost in the enormity of it. With verve, power and passion, Grear presents an insight into one of Wilmington’s most famous artists as a person and a soul.

The Cameron Art Museum was left more than 400 of Evans’ pictures when she passed. The gatehouse is the most unassuming and least complicated structure in the exhibit. Grear puts a strong emphasis on the garden as one of the ongoing inspirations of Evans’ work. Certainly the flowers, leaves and sunshine are re-occurring elements; I would have liked to have seen more of her work hung with the exhibit.

Usually, a script is selected long before set design begins for a show, so it is an interesting experience to see a show that began with the design and construction of the set and then moved to the script and performance. As would be expected at an art museum, the emphasis is on the visual. But these performers really make the inspiration behind the artifacts come alive. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this show; readers must partake this Sunday, April 14th.

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