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Changes planned for Tableaux to tell entire Natchez story

NATCHEZ — When Natchez author Greg Iles discusses plans for the upcoming overhaul of the Historic Natchez Tableaux, he doesn’t speak of the 1860s or even 2015. Iles instead turns to the words Sam Cooke recorded in 1964.

“Cooke’s song begins with the words that remind me of Natchez,” Iles said.

“I was born by the river in a little tent. Oh and just like the river I have been running ever since,” Iles recited from memory. “It’s been a long time, a long time coming. But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”

The Sam Cooke song has become the motivation for Iles and other organizers who say a remake of the Tableaux is not only overdue; it is necessary if the legacy of the production is to continue.

A view of the Old South

With its origins in the very first Pilgrimage events of the 1930s, the Tableaux was conceived as a form of evening entertainment for tourists during the annual Spring Pilgrimage tour of houses. A series of small vignettes, the Tableaux depicted scenes of the life and culture of the South before the Civil War.

Like many Natchezians, Iles had participated in the pageant since he was 4 years old. He participated in the Little Maypole, Big Maypole, Polka and other vignettes.

Through its 83-year history, the Tableaux has been modified from time to time. Vignettes have been tweaked, some even removed. In recent years, parts for black actors and singers have been added to the production. The name was changed from the Natchez Confederate Pageant to the Historic Natchez Pageant to its current name. Still, the original intentions of the production remain largely intact.

“It was a romantic fairy tale,” Iles said. “In the ’30s the success of the pageant happened in tandem with the phenomenal success of the film ‘Gone With the Wind,’ which is still the highest grossing film in history when adjusted for inflation.”

Massive audiences came to Natchez from across the world to see a reenactment of what they saw on the small screen.

“It was an unapologetic celebration of the slave-holding South,” Iles said. “In the ’30s that was accepted, but as time wore on, that was a dated presentation of history.”

Catalyst for change

The father of this year’s Pilgrimage Garden Club Queen Madeline Iles, Greg said the Tableaux’s one-sided presentation of history left his daughter conflicted when she was asked to join this year’s festivities.

“She didn’t want to be queen, unless the Tableaux represented all sides,” he said.

Having previously revealed his own misgivings about the pageant during a speech at the 2009 Natchez-Adams Chamber of Commerce Gala, Iles took his daughter’s impulse to heart and used it as a motivation to talk to the local garden clubs about rewriting and retooling the pageant.

Iles said that he was happy with the response from most of the members of each garden club.

“The great thing is that 98 percent of the people — both on the inside and the outside — have supported the concept,” Iles said. “Of course, there are always a few people who resist change.”

Even with some resistance, most people are on board with the changes, Natchez Garden Club Tableaux Chairman Kristin Jordan and Pilgrimage Garden Club Tableaux Chairman Fayla Guedon said.

“Greg is very passionate about this,” Jordan said. “Everyone feels privileged that he is volunteering his time to do this.”

“We are fired up about it,” Guedon said.

Iles said he is happy to volunteer his time, but that he doesn’t view himself as the savior of the Historic Natchez Tableaux.

“I am a catalyst for change that was ready to happen,” Iles said.

Telling the whole story

To begin, Iles returned to “Gone With the Wind.” After reading Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War saga that encompassed the war and the destruction of the South, Iles decided two things needed to be done to the Tableaux.

“First, you had to fully acknowledge that slavery was the foundation of the cotton empire in Natchez and, then second, you had to acknowledge the defeat and destruction of the South in the Civil War,” Iles said.

In short, the Tableaux needed to tell the whole Natchez story, not just a fairy tale about a portion of it.

“It is time for the entire story to be told,” Executive Director for Natchez Pilgrimage Tours Lindsey Shelton said. “When visitors come here to learn about our history and you send visitors to a program that is supposed to teach them about our history, then you are charged with telling the entire story.”

Fundamental changes

To tell the whole story and to make the Tableaux shorter and run smoother, fundamental changes had to be made, Iles said.

Instead of a series of small vignettes, the production will be more like a play.

“I am treating it as a novelist and screenwriter,” he said. “It will be presented in a dramatic, narrative form, where scenes are linked — where things are set up early on and paid off later.”

“The audience will laugh and they will cry and they will jump out of their seats at certain points,” Iles said.

Recorded music will be used and include both period and contemporary pieces, including Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” during one of the Tableaux’s pivotal moments, Iles said.

“The musical content will be stunning,” Iles said. “Local musicians like Tony Fields, who is an unbelievable singer, will be featured.”

“Not only are we taking advantage of the best local talent, we are bringing in two of the best African-American singers from the University of Southern Mississippi.”

Between each vignette will be a high-definition film of approximately 30 seconds as a transition.

“There will not be one dead second of time in the entire pageant,” Iles said.

The entire production will be shortened from two hours to approximately 65 minutes, and will be offered only on Friday and Saturday nights during Pilgrimage.

New entertainment in conjunction with the Natchez Festival of Music has been created to replace the weeknight evenings on which the Tableaux will no longer be offered.

A new website — shopnatchezpilgrimage.com — is up and running and will make it easier for people to buy tickets in one or two clicks.

More than a legacy

In order to make the pageant shorter while still telling the whole story, major structural changes had to be made, Iles said.

“I have removed several of the well-known vignettes to make room for completely new tableaux that tell the African-American story,” Iles said.

The black community has embraced the changes with an enthusiasm and seriousness that is refreshing, Iles said.

“Here in the bastion of the Old South, black and white are coming together to do something to save this town,” Iles said. “The thing that encourages me the most is the positive response from the black community.”

Fields, who is also the Natchez Alderman for Ward 4, agreed.

Fields said he is personally enthusiastic about the plans to include the slave experience.

“It is not a pretty story, but it is the true story,” Fields said. “It is definitely the right thing to do.”

For those who might be concerned about how the scenes are depicted, Fields said the scenes are powerful, but not overly graphic.

“The way it is going to be presented in a very dramatic fashion, people will embrace the story that is being told,” Fields said.

Because of scheduling conflicts with Southern Road to Freedom, the Holy Family Catholic Church Choir will not be able to participate in this year’s Tableaux like Iles had hoped, but the choir and its director Alvin Shelby have committed to participating next year.

“Instead of competing against each other, we will set a situation where we cross promote each other,” Iles said.

Popular vignettes such as the Little Maypole, Big Maypole, the Polka and Soiree will remain, Jordan and Guedon said. In fact some of the popular scenes from past productions will have a greater presence and some former scenes will be modified, like the wedding of Jefferson Davis that Guedon said, “will end with a twist.”

Organizers are not ready to reveal too many specifics about the Tableaux to encourage everyone to buy tickets and come see the production. Dress rehearsals will not be open to the public.

“We are going to have an exclusive premiere,” Iles said. “Anybody who is going to see the show is going to pay because it is a business, and it’s meant to generate income.”

A legacy worth saving

Iles said some have asked, “Why not just let (the Tableaux) die?”

“There is a very clear answer to that,” Iles said. “How many towns can boast putting on a show that involves more than 250 people, and they all work for free?”

Guedon and Jordan agreed it is a legacy worth preserving — a legacy that wouldn’t exist without the tireless work from all of the people who have contributed to the Tableaux in the past.

In the end, Iles said the most important thing that he hopes comes from the new Tableaux is showing the world what happens when everyone in the community comes together.

“My real intent is to show what can be accomplished when the black and white communities set aside their differences and work together to produce something that is balanced and fair and fantastic,” Iles said. “It’s a new paradigm for Natchez.”

 

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