On a breezy summer evening, seated in an amphitheater carved from the cliffs above Laguna Beach, I attended my first Pageant of the Masters. It’s an elaborate production that stages living reproductions of famous works of art accompanied by a live orchestra. Performers in makeup and costume step into carefully constructed scenes, and transform into the subjects of well-known pieces through the wonders of lighting and stage magic. As part of the beach city’s Festival of the Arts, Pageant of the Masters has been performed every year since 1933, with only a brief hiatus for World War II and a cancellation last year due to COVID-19. As patrons of the arts filled the Irvine Bowl for this year’s return to form, there was a buzz in the atmosphere that couldn’t be wholly attributed to the wine I’d had at Terra Laguna Beach – the upscale al fresco restaurant attached to the festival grounds, fine dining in the unique space that used to be known as Tivoli Terrace. Pageant of the Masters is a beloved Orange County tradition. All the OC natives I’ve mentioned it to have stories to share, their parents taking them to their first Pageant often being among their earliest childhood memories. This post-2020 performance felt resurgent and triumphant.
Every year the works chosen to be depicted in the Pageant share a common theme. This year, the theme was “Made in America.” Like a lot of Americans, I have complex feelings about my country at the moment. I love it deeply, but at times it doesn’t feel like we have much to beat the drum and wave the flag about. American patriotism can be like a failing marriage – you ask yourself if you really love what it is, or only what you wish it could be. Even the word “patriotism” has been blighted by nationalists in this “third-world country in a Gucci belt.” I wasn’t sure if I was ready for a night of applauding Washington Crossing the Delaware set to Yankee Doodle; cheering for white Europeans that enslaved people and massacred an indigenous population to get out of paying taxes and give themselves a chance to play liberal democracy in stockings and powdered wigs. In my opinion, at least, there’s already been enough deification of our founding fathers and other prominent historic figures. They were human beings like any of us; flawed, selfish, and sometimes blinded by their own cultural biases. Whatever else they were, we do our future an injustice by denying ourselves the opportunity to examine their mistakes and learn from them. Glossing over their imperfections and pretending our nation’s history isn’t at least equally condemnable as it is praiseworthy is a disservice to all Americans, and we do it far too often. Safe to say, I brought with me to the theater a set of reservations.
Thankfully, the Pageant subverted my expectations quite handily. It brought to the forefront artists like Edmonia Lewis – the first African-American sculptor to rise to international prominence. It didn’t skate past the fact Lewis had to live as an expat in Italy for much of her life because, in her own words, “the land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.” John Trumbull and Norman Rockwell weren’t absent, but they were made to share a stage with Mary Cassatt, 19th century Impressionist on par with Degas – also a feminist, and an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage. Perhaps most striking to me personally, photographer Dorothea Lange’s powerful Family on the Road, Midwest set not to Yankee Doodle, but Woodie “this machine kills fascists” Guthrie.
Dorothea Lange was a photojournalist hired by the U.S. Farm Security Administration to document the challenges of rural poverty during the Great Depression. Much of her work focuses on migrants that fled the dust bowl and headed West, seeking work and the promise of a better life in California. Information is frequently sparse about the subjects of her documentary photos, but at least one source says this photograph was snapped between Phoenix and Yuma, Arizona; a family from Fort Smith, Arkansas headed to California with everything they own in tow. I would imagine it’s not hard for most people that know me or my recent history to understand why this photograph would speak to me.
As I write this, I’ve lived in Orange County just a few days shy of a year. Sometimes, the nearly thirty-six years I spent in Shreveport prior just feel like a faraway blur. Some distant memory, or a dream I recently woke up from that’s started to go fuzzy around the edges. There’s moments it feels like my life, my real life, didn’t start until August 2020. Other times, it’s the other way around – these blissful months of street tacos and sunshine are the dream, and any moment I’m going to snap back to reality at the corner of Kings and Creswell.
Even with so many things closed or operating minimally due to pandemic precautions, I’ve had so many amazing experiences in the last year. Some are spectacular and grand, like spotting blue whales at Dana Point. Others are quiet and mundane, takeout for dinner out on the patio whilst coyotes yip in the distance. Some are old favorites with a new twist – we saw Reverend Horton Heat again, but this time at an old drive-in theater, complete with cute rockabilly girls like pinups come-to-life and sideburned Daddy-O’s driving immaculate old hot rods. Others are completely unprecedented in Shreveport – for our anniversary last year we rented a little farmhouse in Temecula Valley and toured rolling winery vineyards that you’d be forgiven for mistaking for Tuscany. And I’ll say, if you’ve never had a Double-Double animal style after a day swimming in the Pacific and lounging on the beach, there’s nothing like it. I used to say there were two kinds of people in the world – people that thought In-N-Out was the pinnacle of drive-thru food, and people that had tried Whataburger. Now I realize like so many things of beauty, to really appreciate In-N-Out you have to understand it in context.
I feel like maybe the same is true of myself. In Shreveport, sometimes people try to use palm trees for landscaping. Louisiana’s subtropical climate means some species of palm can survive the short mild winters, but they almost always end up stunted and sickly; not thriving, just surviving. The environment doesn’t provide what they need to reach their potential. You probably see where this is going. A year ago I wrote about that inexplicable feeling Southern California gives me, that sense of finally being where I belong. It’s only deepened since we moved. At another arts festival just down the road from Pageant of the Masters, Michelle and I chatted with a local artist and his wife, we mentioned we were recent transplants. They told us “welcome back,” and attributed the ease with which we adapted to our new culture to having lived here in a previous life. As a self-proclaimed agnostic I don’t take a firm stance one way or the other on the idea, but it seems as convenient an explanation as any. I make sense to me here. If finding yourself is the process of remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you, my memory is clearest at the foot of the Saddleback. While I can still only guess why, after so many years feeling just slightly out of sync with the world I lived in, it’s so good to finally find home.