Denver Underground: Drunken History New Orleans at the Diebolt Brewery
On Thursday evening, I visited the Sunnyside neighborhood of Denver for the Goldfish Entertainment production, Drunk Historians Mardi Gras: History of New Orleans! Two blocks down Mariposa Street, past a laundry mat and some warehouse space, Diebolt Brewing Company is a locally-owned small business that hosts events such as comedy and variety shows, beer unveilings, drunken science lessons, wedding receptions, and hipster adult-thrown children’s parties. (Doesn’t everyone want a certain level of intoxication to bare ten to thirty children screaming and running around; or, is it just me?)
In the back room separate from the bar area, wooden storage barrels second as standing bar tables scattered around the room. Folding chairs line about eight rows, prepared to seat an audience in front of a small, low stage. Set with professional lighting, the dichotomic stage setup also consists of the industrial garage door of the warehouse space as the backdrop. We are in the Diebolt brewery, where Diebolt brews seasonal beers such as the “Reunion Island Gose beer” made with pink peppercorns, French grey sea salt, and then kettle-soured with Lactobacillus or the “Polynesian Biere de Garde” brewed with toasted coconut, cacao nibs, and vanilla bean, along with their year-round IPA, double IPA, and Porter. Behind a retractable belt divider like you would find in a theatre for crowd control, my eyes scan large silver fermenters, shelving housing large bags of starter grains, and other miscellaneous equipment to make beer. I feel like I’m in the underground Denver, a backroom unknown to tourists and visitors.
After enjoying the open, industrial space early in the evening by practicing a few one-handed ball juggles and some plate balancing, I turned my view to the stage for the first act. Comedian Cory Stevens started off this New Orleans’ version of Drunk History with beads braided around his arms and head to the point of entrapping him in Mardi Gras’ reality. Although he didn’t quite educate me on the history of New Orleans other than by touching upon how the laws around nudity have become restricted during the infamous yearly Mardi Gras celebrations, Cory still knew how to make an audience laugh. He fabricated a common theme throughout his act in which he brags about being a “great tourist”. He begins with an example of how, when arriving in Denver, he immediately consumed copious amounts of drugs – a reality that irks many locals striving to move forward a drug culture that can be civilized with medicinal, mindful and responsible use. He rounds out his bragging at the end, reminding us he’s such a great tourist, that, of course, when he visits New Orleans, he asks everyone about Katrina, one of the largest and most destructive hurricanes that impacted the region.
If you don’t know what Drunk History is, you wouldn’t know after watching Cory – and that’s okay. This is a contest that Cory wanted to play but not win. Once Caitie Hannan took to the stage with her orange locks and banging black knee-high boots holding her notes in one hand and a beer in another, you might gather that you are here to learn something. Even if Cory didn’t quite get there, the rest of the line-up did varied levels of research and rehearsal to define and understand history and then attempt to illustrate what they learned while consuming ample amounts of alcohol. Drunk History originated as a web series before catching its break on Comedy Central as “the liquored-up narration of our nation’s history”. Goldfish Entertainment’s live stage version extrapolates the best of an already successful idea.
Caitie might have been quite tipsy as she checks in with the audience as though we were all just hanging out at some party in which she got too drunk to know if she’s crossed a line, “Are you okay? Are we okay?”. She holds it together though, as she chronicles the tale of a woman last known as “Madame LaLaurie”, a sensational serial killer who tortured and murdered her slaves. Caitie describes Madame LaLaurie getting her hair brushed by one of her 12-year-old slaves and how the brush hit a snag, remarking that the slave owner had “nasty ass hair, obviously”. The subtle cleverness of shifting our “white hair=good/black hair=bad” pretense onto the rich white Madame does not slip past me. Catie begins to detail some of the brutal torture and evil Madame LaLaurie enacted on slaves, and then she pauses to remark on how weird and unexpected it feels to deliver speech to a live audience on the topic of such cruelties. As a final and fun tidbit to Catie’s educational performance, she lets us know that actor Nicholas Cage purchased the famous “LaLaurie House” in New Orleans and, in 2009, was facing foreclosure on the mansion.
Jon Carelli took to the stage next. Dressed in the late 20’s attire of a high-waisted suit pant and large double-buttoned suit jacket, a middle-aged man opens his mouth with the perfect N’orleans southern accent of the time. Jon remains almost entirely in the role of Huey Long, the 40th governor of Louisiana, as he criticizes the audience – us – for our debauchery, sexuality, and drinking during a time of prohibition. Jon educates us through his character play, teaching us about Long’s tenure during the Great Depression, his questionable liberal and egalitarian contributions to the poor and the black populations in Louisiana and the running of his political platform on “every man are kings” that really meant “every white man are kings”. Long influenced socialist projects for education, care for the elderly, and public works – such as the creation of 9,700 miles of paved road – while inevitably facilitating and profiting from those same efforts. Think about it, Jon suggests, the governor during prohibition built the very roads that allowed liquor to be much more easily transported.
Kona Morris, the winner of the evening, follows Jon’s act. Kona begins by asking the audience, what do we know about the War of 1812? She wants to “survey the American education system” so she inquires if we’ve heard of it, if we know who fought in it, and maybe, just maybe, if we know when the War…of…1812 took place? She’s funny with every word that comes out of her mouth and every move she makes, even the reveal of her patriotic blue-and-white striped shirt and red pants hidden initially under a coat. Though she taught me quite a bit about the importance of the War of 1812, a revolutionary battle that brought us the Star-Spangled Banner (thanks shitty American education system) and post-dated America’s independence from the Brit’s by almost 40 years, Kona is not above twisting the facts for humor. She asserts with the utmost seriousness that James Madison once said word for word, “Dude, this is fucking retarded”.
Natalia Kvalem, who delights us with her prodigious hosting throughout the evening, wiggles onto stage before the next act inspired by something Kona said. Natalia holds the microphone still attached to its base as she encircles it and chants “Bourbon Street, not Sesame Street” over and over. She continues to get drunk throughout the night and still teach us as much as possible about the whorehouse industry of New Orleans and the beauty and safety of debauchery happening under the accepting eyes of the police. She reminds us that SESTA (Stop Enabling Online Sex Trafficking Act), similar to the criminalization of the red-light district of New Orleans, created unnecessary and ignorant harm to women. Natalia would never be satisfied as a simple comedian; the stage for her holds power bigger than laughter – and, as long as folks keep asking her to stand on it, she will continue to take a stand.
Up next was Emily Crock sashaying onto the stage with an air of 80’s-music-video-sexiness in her short, straight blonde bob, scant and tight black dress, and obvious purple-tinted lipstick. Emily lets us know right off the bat that she did her make-up to look like she had been “sucking dick”. Her style and story-telling collide as she muses on strip club raids in New Orleans and the blowjobs that went on in the backrooms. Emily may have been a bit drunk, but she sure did dazzle with a rendition of a “dick suck” song she wrote to the tune of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA”.
After Emily, John Beakes comes out dressed in the drag attire of Marie Laveau, the famous “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans” from the 1900’s. Drunk enough to almost pass out at any time, John playfully adjusts the leggings underneath his way-too-short skirt and warns us that he’s probably going to end up flashing us his bits. Despite drunken ramblings about his voodoo priestess character, he effectively paints a picture of an unstoppable Laveau walking the streets of New Orleans with a snake by wrapping the microphone cord around his own neck. Having garnered a false reputation for psychic abilities after using infamous gossip hubs such as hair salons and brothels to obtain the secrets of the powerful and rich, Leveau could do whatever the fuck she wanted to do in a world in which women usually held virtually zero power. He then asks our host, Natalia to touch his microphone-snake and when she reaches for the mic, John gasps “no, not that one” and remarks, “hashtag sexual harassment in the workplace”. It’s a joke I feel I’m being fed directly, as I just finished drafting sexual harassment training for work.
All and all, the evening was a blast. A first for me, live Drunken History holds a certain sorcery – it’s nothing like being around a bunch of drunken fools at a party. It’s like finding the funniest, most intelligent and passionate people at a party and knowing they will attempt to perform their best, even when they’ve been handed beer after beer to sabotage their efforts. I can’t help but like these people who are willing to make ratchet fools of themselves, to prepare to do so at the expense of their dignity, and to take seriously the effort to educate us on history all the while.
I imagine myself returning to a hip city life I once lived in my youth, able to walk from home to entertainment venue and back again with ease. Somehow, I would be a better artist if I lived among the art. I would wake up early, maybe, inspired to read, to write, or to call my loved ones. I would be amiss to forget about the hidden gems within cities, the people and the places that must be uncovered and discovered. The Sunnyside neighborhood, adjacent the Highlands neighborhood of Denver, is a particularly glorious neighborhood to have such dreams, as it’s both rough enough to appear artsy and yet gentrified enough to be a bourgeois escape from the realities that exist only a neighborhood over. Though I know I will have to make my way back home to the suburbs outside of Denver at the end of the night, I feel the laughter, joy, and liveliness at being a part of the underground experience.