Rebel Nuns and Jazz from Saturn
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- Published: Wednesday, 04 October 2017 05:17
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Rebel Nuns and Jazz from Saturn: Two History Plays
By Dr. Robert Mielke
Golden Antelope is nearly ready to publish Rebel Nuns and Jazz from Saturn: Two History Plays by Professor Bob Mielke. The book should be out before Christmas.
The first of the two plays is titled IHM (Immaculate Heart of Mary); it dramatizes the 1960s conflict between nuns in Los Angeles’ Immaculate Heart of Mary Congregation and the conservative wing of the Roman Catholic church there. Specifically, IHM dramatizes conversations and arguments about how, why—and whether—the nuns should implement the Second Vatican Council’s invitation to become less hierarchical. Debates swirled and festered throughout the 1960s; in Los Angeles they climaxed in 1968 at the height of Flower Power, when Cardinal McIntyre gave the IHM sisters a choice. They could either submit to his authority, return to old customs and costumes, and continue teaching in diocesan schools—or they could leave. About 300 of the 368 nuns chose to leave the Congregation and form a separate, non-canonical IHM Community—a group which is still active in social justice issues today. Mielke’s heroines include Mother Humiliata (Anita Caspray), who led the Congregation and the Community, and the iconic artist, Sister Corita Kent, famous for blending pop art and spirituality in enormous projects. A host of nuns and clergymen round out the scene as they deliberate, empathize, are fearful or outraged. Two Epilogues end the play.
The second play, Discipline 27-II: A Cosmo-Drama in Two Acts, pulls us into the quirky world of the jazz musician known first as Herman Blount, then as Sun Ra (1914-1993). In Discipline 27-II Mielke makes Ra’s strange claim to have come from the planet Saturn not preposterous but true. (The cast includes Saturn Aliens, a NASA official, and an Earth Goddess—all watching an elaborate Sun Ra concert.) Ra’s actual life story is dramatized in short scenes against the concert background. Though he grew up as Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, and was sent to prison by a racist judge in 1942, Ra claimed that his true nature was cosmic, that he had come to enlighten Earth and to teach peace. Sun Ra gathered and coached musicians in his ensemble, the Arkestra, a group which became known for its futuristic costumes, musical experimentation, and performance art.
Audience involvement in Discipline 27-II begins immediately, in the theater lobby where concessioners provide Moon Stew and Arkestra members sit at random tables doing improvised riffs of increasing intensity. It continues as we listen in on conversations about philosophy and ethics and music, and watch exotic dancers and amazing singers and space aliens interact.
Scenes from IHM were performed at a Women and Gender Studies Conference recently; Discipline 27-II premiered in St. Louis in 2015. Mielke includes extensive notes on costume options, sets, and performance alternatives for both lively plays, as well as his own musings about pop culture and religion in the 1960s.
Dr. Bob Mielke is a professor of English at Truman State University. He has taught courses in early American lit, film studies, African American literature, and assorted topics in popular culture. His Adventures in Avant Pop includes a substantial chapter on Sun Ra. His Riddles of the Painful Earth: Suffering and Society in the Fiction of William Dean Howells looks at the ethical codes of Howells’ characters. His book of poetry, Kirksville, demonstrates his keen eye for significant details.