Bobby Boo and Bobo
I didn’t think I would die, necessarily, but then again I was drunk. As the Mississippi woods closed in around the hunting camp where Nita, Reed, Donal and I partied, I chose not to see what was lurking in that strange, strange territory. I raised another Bud to my lips, laughed too hard at a joke, and hoped for the best.
May 1989. I ‘d been living in Port Gibson, Mississippi for almost six months by the time “Romeo and Juliet” opened at the Trace Theater. In that time, my colleagues in the Cornerstone Theater Company and I had created a production of the play in this highly segregated, long -past –its- prime village that Sherman had dubbed “too beautiful to burn.” Stately white plantation homes lined the main street, one block away from the sharecropper shacks that hadn’t gotten the memo that slavery had ended. When the schools were federally desegregated the white community poured money into reviving the local military academy, so they could preserve the racial divide that the laws now declared was history.
Into this drippy, sensual world we industrious New Englanders guided this production of civil hate. Our mission was to create site specific, community- based theater with the people who lived in that community. We acted, sang, built sets, and lived with that town for months on end. In a sly way we’d make a progressive agenda known. We’d take the temperature of the town, hear concerns and hopeful visions, and lay all that onto the scaffolding of a sturdy, time-tested text. Usually our message of inclusion was subtle, lyrical and somewhat obtuse.
Not here. Here the issues were glaring. But how perfect, we thought. Yes, of course: all the Capulets will be white; the Montagues black, and a full gospel choir will mourn their fate. And so it was that nightly I, as Juliet, was held by the black, functionally illiterate local high school track star Richard, who politely hid his ever-ready adolescent erection as the town simmered around us.
That’s when the KKK showed up.
There were rumblings, as we opened the show that the long dormant chapter of the Klan in the next town had woken up and found their mission in opposing our play. We didn’t know if was true, but we didn’t know it wasn’t, so I was escorted home every night the few blocks between the theater and our rental house. The show opened to wild success and the saddest part about being in Port Gibson at that point was that there was simply no place to celebrate. The bars were completely segregated. So after performing our hearts out the story of civil hate that destroyed a town, we would sit on the steps of the Trace Theater with pork rinds and Buds Lites, smack dab in the center of a town destroyed by civil hate.
Our doorstep parties were interracial, intergenerational and always caused much honking from the Chevy pick-ups passing by. We were outlaws, I guess. Richard was often there. We assumed – prayed — he was 18. One night we’d had it. We wanted a bar to go to, together. Someone suggested we all go to the Birds Nest, a white bar, and that we just plain bring Richard along. Hell, we’d shield Richard’s blackness with our liberalness and fuck them all. We went.
Inside the bar was the typical dingy pool table, the neon beer signs and the saggy sultry flesh. Not surprisingly there was a hush as we walked in. Along with me and Richard, there were four others, all white: my boyfriend Donal, Nita, her boyfriend Reed, and Ashby – the intrepid Cornerstone member whose sheer good humor could melt most hearts. Richard looked both terrified and amused. He was in the master’s quarters now, escorted by these odd Northerners who didn’t seem to have a clue.
We drank, tried to have a good time, but the Bird’s Nest was vibey and weird. Two jovial white boys came over and started chatting with us – the only ones who dared. They were fearless, robust, knew about our play, and didn’t seem at all uncomfortable with Richard. Their names were Bobby Boo and Bobo.
“Let’s get out of here,” Bobo said. “We have a hunting camp near here – we can drink, smoke some weed, have a bonfire. It’ll be more comfortable for you guys.”
Richard’s eyes widened.
“Sure,” I said. “Sounds like a great idea. This bar is not that cool for us. Where do we go?”
Bobo said we should caravan.
Donal and I in my mom’s old Renault, Nita and Reed in her Toyota. Ashby drove the company truck with Richard riding shotgun, all following Bobby Boo’s red taillights through the misty, wormy Mississippi woods.
There was a fleeting thought, in my cloudy, cloudy head that this might not be a good idea. Donal sang the “Deliverance” theme. It was funny, and not. We drove on, much farther than I anticipated, but what did I know about anything down here? Raised on John Adams and the Sect of Rationalism, I was way, way out of my league.
We drove up to the hunting camp, which consisted of two squat trailer homes with some plastic chairs outside. We were nervous, but Bobo was a wonderful host. We went inside where he busted out the Bud Lites and the ubiquitous pork rinds. A brunette materialized from the back room that Bobby Boo attended to. They slid the lock in the bedroom door and we never saw them again.
Bobo went to get the bonfire started. We six stayed inside and looked around. Worn brown cloth on the couch, sticky glasses in the sink, pictures on the walls. Yes, it was low rent but it was also honest and comfortable and I, for one, was getting off on my enormously large spirit such that I could have a friend in Bobo. It worked – this liberal shit! I could reach across the gulfs of class, education, and geography, lose my judgment and find common ground with another human being! Goddamn it felt good to be alive! To know this! I love my life! Give me another Bud, Donal, and pass the motherfuckin’ pork rinds!
Unfortunately, I chose to voice these thoughts publicly and passionately.
And right before Bobo came back in – we heard him banging around trashcans looking for kindling – we saw it. In one of those photo collages – do they even make them anymore? – where different shapes – squares! circles! – held 3 by 5s, we saw it. A person in a Klansmen robe waving to the person taking the picture.
I sobered up, or tried to. Richard had seen it – of course he had, the minute he walked into that room – but hadn’t said a thing. I wasn’t thinking clearly, but Ashby was. As smooth as an FBI agent she stood Richard up. “We’ll see you guys later,” she said and spirited him away. I thought, we should go too. I thought, I have to stand for what I believe and say something to Bobo. I can’t break bread with a Klansmen. I have come here to spread good will, not consort with the devil. I had so many speeches going on in my head, but I just couldn’t quite get off the couch.
The bonfire was lit, beer cans were cracked. The good feeling returned, as we tried to feel the unity that we so longed for. Bobo waxed poetic.
“GodDAMN this is fun! You know, I didn’t know what to make of it, when you guys came to town. I thought you were another bunch of government do-gooders gonna tell us we’re all wrong, tell us how to do things right. But you guys are COOL. I heard about your play – haven’t seen it yet, hard for me to sit still that long, why I didn’t make it through high school math –”
“Who DID?” Donal cheered, who was brilliant and finished AP calculus in record time. But why talk of differences now?
“Ha HA! That’s right, Donald! But really, you guys, here’s a toast.” Bobo lifted his Bud toward the flickering light. “To people being the same under the skin. Don’t matter how you was raised, how much money you have in the bank. Good people is good people. Amen.”
Amen to that, we seconded.
A pesky question swirled in my brain. Up from the waves of Buds and clouds of various kinds of smoke, it surfaced. I batted it down, but it would not be denied.
“Hey, Bobo,” I affected a casual party girl tone. “I got a question for ya. There’s a picture in there? Of a Klansmen at a rally? Waving to the camera. That’s not, like, a friend of yours, is it?” Hands gesticulating: craziest idea in the world.
Bobo paused not one bit.
“Oh my God! Is that what you thought? Is that why the black guy split?”
We mumbled well, no. And yes.
“No, no, no. Guys, I’m a photojournalist. There was a rally in Jackson and I went to take pictures. I cannot BELIEVE those motherfucking Klansmen – had to see it for myself!’
“Oh, totally, that’s what I thought!” I cheered in relief. “I couldn’t believe that you—“ “You seem so cool –“ “It was just that with Richard –” We piled over each other with good feeling, happy to climb back into the puppy pile of shared love. Bobo and Bobby Boo were just like us (we included Bobby Boo thought we hadn’t seen him for hours) – they also wanted to tear down the walls that divide us.
We drank and smoked til dawn. We ate ancient Twinkies to quench our munchies, a Eucharist of sorts. The bonfire burned to smoky ash before we piled into our caravan, hugs all around, congratulating ourselves on a magical night.
Donal and I rode back in silence. We got back to the rental house and I climbed into bed for a couple of hours. I was due to drive with my parents to New Orleans that morning. They had come down from Connecticut to see the sites. That meant New Orleans, I figured, and not Bobo’s hunting camp.
I was pasty and achy loading myself into their Hertz Corolla, but still gladdened by the night. This is what my parents raised me to do: to see all people as equal; to reach across the divides of geography, race and class; to live in the tradition of MLK FDR, and Dorothy Day; to help those in need, and to listen to the stories of my fellow man. I did good last night. My parents would be proud.
I told them the story of the previous night.
I lay in the backseat, my head spinning from my hangover and my eyes taking in the Spanish moss dripping over the Natchez Trace. I got to the part of Bobo’s beautiful explanation. Then one by one by one, as though by alchemy, the words became dust in my mouth. I realized it now; he had lied. He had told me what I wanted to hear, and I was so hungry for unity that I lapped it up without a second thought. In the light of day, my gullibility was pathetic.
My parents’ heads looked straight ahead in the front seat. I lay in the back, feeling like a child. They didn’t know it, but their liberal agenda was seriously outgunned by this ancient territory, and it would take more than a play for things to change. And that change certainly wasn’t going to come from me, a short-timer white girl who was going home soon. Maybe that’s what Bobo knew, and I didn’t. We say things to make sure the party’s fun. We’ll go our separate ways in the morning.
NOTE: Amy wrote the above story for Spark Off Rose, a Los Angeles-based group that creates community through the art of storytelling. She read her story recently at the November Spark Off Rose event, Territory. For more information about Spark Off Rose, visit sparkoffrose.com. For more information about Cornerstone Theater, visit cornerstonetheater.org and visit Amy’s Cornerstone Theater section on her website.