STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
Tastykakes weren’t on the menu in the late 1700s. They are, however, a big part of the Bastille Day celebration at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Bastille Day is a French celebration commemorating the beginning of the French Revolution with the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, as well as the Fête de la Fédération, which celebrated the unity of the French people on the same date the following year.
The annual Eastern State Penitentiary Bastille Day event mocks all things French, tackles topical issues, and culminates in a playful reenactment of the storming of the Bastille, which in this case is the historic Philadelphia prison.
John Jarboe, of West Philadelphia, will be leading his group The Bearded Ladies. They are a queer experimental cabaret company, he said during a recent telephone interview. The troupe performs songs you know in a different way that you’re used to. The songs come together to form a narrative and tell a story, too.
“It’s a great evening of entertainment,” he said. “And there’s always kind of a twist in the show that makes you think about your music collection in a different way.”
The group’s Bastille Day program is a “fantasy revolution in Philadelphia,” he said. The Ladies will teach the audience, who participates as The Mob, dances and call and responses. The underlying thing Jarboe hopes people think about is, if there was a revolution now, what would we be fighting for?
The music they include ranges from classic rock to contemporary pop and everything in between. The Bastille Day show will feature “a lot of Beyonce, some Tracy Chapman,” and more, he said.
Some of the characters weren’t part of the original French events — at Eastern State, audiences will see the Pope and Mayor Nutter. Not the real pope, of course, but the group has asked the mayor if he’ll join them.
“We’re trying to get him,” Jarboe said. “That would be so great.”
Jarboe portrays Edith Piaf, a French cabaret singer who became widely regarded as France’s national diva. Audiences will also see Joan of Arc, Ben Franklin and His Liberty Bell Dancers, and a six-foot baguette. The villain, of course, is always Marie Antoinette, the infamous beheaded French queen. She’s attributed with saying “Let them eat cake!” although historians say there’s no proof she uttered that sentence. Nonetheless, her sidekick will be a person in a Tastykake costume and the tasty Philadelphia treats will be tossed over the prison’s walls to the people watching.
The event is funny and fun and politically meaningful, Jarboe said.
“It’s a lot of dancing and games and pleasure and spectacle,” he said, “and there are real questions to think about.”
Sean Kelley, Eastern State’s senior vice president, loves how the audiences get into it, too. They dress up (instructions on how to dress like the French of that era are on Eastern State’s website www.easternstate.org). They sing along. They’re part of the action — this year, organizers are asking audience members to bring squirt guns, which they’ll spray into the air every time someone says “Reign of terror.”
Kelley loves Bastille Day.
“It’s silly and smart also. It’s big, playful, kind of stupid fun,” he said during a telephone interview. “It’s a lot of Monty Python, feels like Rocky Horror. It’s a drag show. There are extraordinary props. The costumes are hilarious. It’s a polished production. And it’s free.”
The first Bastille Day celebration in the neighborhood was held in the mid-1990s as a way to showcase local restaurants and keep people in town during the somewhat slow month of July, Kelley said. The event has gotten bigger and better every year since.
Kelley portrays the executioner, with a genuine guillotine with a 30 pound steel blade, he said.
“We use it to slice watermelon,” he said. “That’s how they used to test the guillotine in French times.”
No one else gets to use it, for safety reasons. Kelley enjoys it, even though the black velvet outfit he wears is hot, especially in the middle of July.
“I’ve often wondered why they couldn’t have the revolution in a month in the spring,” he said.
Hot or not, Bastille Day is one of Jarboe’s favorite days of the year. Not only is it fun, he thinks live entertainment is needed, especially during these increasingly technological times.
“People need experiences that are insistent on their liveness,” he said. “You need people to sit on your lap and say ‘You’re not your cell phone right now. This is a real interaction.’”
The interactions through the years have meant a lot to him, for many reasons.
“It’s powerful to be in a dress with a beard in front of 8,000 people and to have them cheering for you. That’s moving for a young queer boy from the Midwest,” said Jarboe, who attended the University of Michigan and has lived in Philadelphia for about seven years.
Both men said some people return year after year to participate, which they love. They also hope that new people will come and enjoy a little French flair in their own back yard.
And the cake, of course.
“It’s all about the cake,” Jarboe said.
IF YOU GO
What: Bastille Day Cabaret and Reenactment
When: 5:30 p.m. Saturday, July 11.
Where: Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia.
Admission: Cabaret and reenactment are free; discounted twilight tours of the prison 6:30-8:30 p.m. $8 online; $10 at the door.
Info.: Call (215) 236-3300 or visit http://www.easternstate.org/bastille-day-preview