A stellar shout-out from New Orleans
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I recently visited New Orleans, and I was going to write something about the city's ongoing recovery - but then I went to a yelling contest.
Not any old yelling contest. This was an annual contest held as part of the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, and it pays homage to one of the most famous yells in American theater. (No, not "Fire!")
Williams, for those innocent of both theater and pre-1980 movies, wrote "A Streetcar Named Desire," a very famous play set in New Orleans. It was made into a very famous movie starring the very famous Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, a very famous side of beef.
In an iconic moment, Stanley, who has had a falling out with his wife, Stella, stands in the street and bellows up at her in a primal roar of longing.
"Hey, Stella! STELLA!
It doesn't sound like much in print, sure, but actors LOVE that bit, because, though they will tell you it's challenging physically and emotionally and requires preparation and breathing and understanding of the character's inner turmoil, it's also tremendous fun.
This is scenery-chewing on a scale that makes "To be or not to be" from "Hamlet" look like the farm report.
So why not make it competitive, a throat-splitting emote-off with prizes? This is why I love New Orleans, as leaky as it may be.
The Stella Shouting Contest (technically the Stella/Stanley Shouting Contest because it's coed and you can holler the name of whichever character helps you get your angst on) happens on Jackson Square in the French Quarter, possibly because the shouting will blend in there. The first 25 people to sign up get to compete, and a crowd gathers under one of those classic wrought-iron balconies, on which stands an actress in a slip (Stella) and last year's winner, along with a crowd of judges, media people and festival dignitaries.
Thanks to New Orleans' famously generous open-container policy, the crowd is very enthusiastic. As the mecca of what might be called alcotourism, this city will never lose its unique beauty as long as it keeps slapping beer goggles on every visitor.
I myself had started the day at an outdoor food festival and found a mint julep in my hand on the stroke of noon. My first morning in town: coffee, alligator sandwich, bourbon. On Palm Sunday.
Most of the contestants were men, and most produced a creditably painful howl. A few got creative. An impeccably dressed gentleman took a pass on the usual animal physicality and whipped out a cell phone. Up on the balcony in her slip, Stella looked mystified - until she received his text message.
One of the six guys who made the finals - a Stell-off about an hour later on the stage at Le Petit Theatre down the street - went off script and started yelling the Saints' cheer, "Who dat? Who dat?" The Pittsburgh translation of that would be "Here we go, Stella, here we go!"
A mime came in third.
In second place was the first tandem team to make the finals, a large bearded guy who yelled "STEL" and a much smaller guy who supplied the "LA!!" Tennessee Williams meets "The Electric Company."
The winner was a young man from Chalmette who took a traditional approach. He seemed a little slight for Stanley Kowalski, and his whole body shook when he yelled. But his lungs were formidable. And when he took the stage in the finals, he kicked it up a notch by tearing his white undershirt in half. The crowd went wild. He wasn't exactly built like Brando, but in the long run, that might not be a bad thing.
Chalmette is in St. Bernard Parish, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. I toured its ruined neighborhoods a couple of years ago. There was something reassuring and hopeful about that prize-winning bellow, that victorious bursting of fabric. There was spirit in it.
Maybe I wound up writing something about recovery after all.
First Published April 29, 2010 12:00 am