The Big Ears Festival opened on Thursday and thousands of folks flooded into downtown Knoxville. They came from 48 states — including Alaska and Hawaii — and 21 foreign countries. (The only states not represented: Idaho and Nebraska.)
It was thrilling to walk down Gay Street and hear, not only foreign accents, but also groups of people speaking in foreign languages, some of which I didn’t recognize. At the ballet last night — Lucy Negro Redux presented by the Nashville Ballet — the folks sitting beside us were from Rochester, New York. Those in front of us were from Charlotte. The Rochester people said they were considering moving here. “We want to live somewhere where the people are real,” the woman confided. “Oh, I can assure you we are real!” I laughed.
All in all, including patrons and artists, there will be more than 16,000 visits to this year’s Big Ears events, with more than 150 concerts, films, panel discussions, installations and surprises through Sunday when the festival shuts down. Many of the offerings are free of charge. Check out the Big Ears website for more info on everything. Or, look for the News Sentinel’s Go Knoxville section, largely devoted today to Big Ears coverage.
The festival also means lots of exposure for Knoxville as dozens of national and international reporters are in town. The New York Times has sent two reporters to cover Big Ears.
One of the best things about Big Ears is the fantastic mood it inspires in the locals. It’s like we just can’t believe it’s happening here in our little burg. It feels as if we are on vacation in our own town. Some friends of ours from West Knoxville rented rooms at the Hyatt Place on Gay Street so they could be in the thick of things. We ran into other friends at the restaurants we normally frequent and folks just couldn’t stop smiling. It was as if we were seeing everything through the eyes of our visitors — and we liked what we saw!
“When we held the first Big Ears in 2009, we had no idea what it would become,” said Ashley Capps at the festival’s opening reception at the Knoxville Museum of Art last night. “Much has been made about Big Ears being an avant-garde music festival. But I do not consider it to be avant-garde. Big Ears brings all kinds of music — classical, jazz, rock, folk, bluegrass and now ballet and beyond. It all comes together. That is the essence of Big Ears.”
Capps, the founder of Big Ears, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, thanked a slew of festival sponsors, but gave a special shout-out to the Aslan Foundation, which came forth with funding after Capps had shelved Big Ears following the first two years of its existence. Ann and Steve Bailey also are big supporters, providing the underwriting to make every festival offering held at the Knoxville Museum of Art free of charge.
Here’s something else that’s free of charge: my advice that you get out and enjoy the unique experience that is Big Ears. Just sample a little of it this year and next year you’ll want to buy a four-day pass!
Based on a series of poems by Caroline Randall Williams, the premise is that Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady Sonnets” were written about his love affair with a black brothel owner, the title character, referred to as Lucy Negro.
To add to the drama, Shakespeare apparently is bisexual, also having a love affair with a young man he refers to as the “Fair Youth.” And then THAT guy and Lucy hook up! Yep. Pretty complicated and dramatic. And, if that’s not enough to hold your attention, the dancing is fabulous. The characters almost seem weightless. And the costumes can at times make them appear naked. (I can see why my friend John wanted to see it twice!)
After the performance, some of the key figures came back on stage to discuss the piece and take questions from the audience.
My favorite question came from an older lady who asked, “What was it all about? It was lovely, but I am so confused. Can someone please tell me what it’s about?”
Caroline Randall Williams’ answer: “It was about a love triangle between Shakespeare, Lucy and the Fair Youth. It’s about how can we see ourselves as beautiful and how can we love who we love?”
OK. There are three more jam-packed days of Big Ears. Do yourself a favor and experience it!
(Disclosure: Moxley Carmichael does some public relations work for both Big Ears and the Tennessee Theatre. But we would have given just as glowing a review even if we didn’t!)
Here are a couple of interesting links regarding the ballet.
A local review by KnoxTNToday’s Harold Duckett: https://www.knoxtntoday.com/nashville-ballet-shines-in-groundbreaking-lucy-negro-redux/
A wonderful New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/05/arts/dance/nashville-ballet-shakespeare-lucy-negro.html