TEXAS: Where the Wind Comes Sweeping Down the Plain

My hosts in Lubbock strongly recommended that I drive through Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and if I could, see the show performed at the canyon on the history of Texas. I was hoping to get considerably more distance covered on the way to Oklahoma City, but I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to see the second largest canyon in the United States after such a wonderful experience at the first. I figured I would go through the park, take a look at the canyon, and hopefully get a bit more driving in before camping for the night.

For reasons I still cannot and probably will never be able to understand, I managed to click the wrong address on my phone. I then proceeded to follow the directions to that wrong address. For two hours.

Silverton PopulationWhen I finally realized my mistake, I began to head north, feeling like I was too far out of the way to back-track to the park now. I carried this thought for about 20 minutes, until I pulled over by the water tower in Clarendon. It was after 3PM, and it would take me at least two hours to drive back over to Palo Duro. If I drove there, I’d get to camp there and see the show, but then have to drive a full five hours the next day. If I kept going to Oklahoma City, I’d get a lot more mileage in and have an easier day, but I’d probably end up at an overpriced roadside motel if I couldn’t find a campground. The first choice was appealing, but the second sounded so much easier in the long run.

I thought for a moment, then looked up at the water tower. Screw it.

I made great time to Palo Duro Canyon, and managed to get a decent campsite, plus a dinner and show ticket. I sat next to a pair of women from Long Island who were on their way to Colorado. One of the women in particular truly exemplified the Long Islander, including the thick accent. She was talkative and blunt, and I absolutely loved her. “I never cared much for history,” she said, “because it was always about men and who cares, ya know?”

I said goodbye to my dinner guests and took my seat in the outdoor theater. Nestled right inside the canyon, the backdrop for the stage is the canyon wall itself, with brush and bushes for theater wings. The musical is called “TEXAS” and I was told by several Texans that it was a great show. I was excited to either see a good performance or learn a lot about what it means to be a “great show” in Texas.

Palo DuroAs the play begins it is still light out, and a huge chorus of 50-60 people dance out onto the stage. They sing a mashup of various country and American classics (Home on the Range, et al), interwoven with a main refrain that uses the word “TEXAS” to end every other line. Because the back of the stage is open, men on horseback ride by carrying the Texas flag. It is like any family-friendly musical, with the better dancers out in front to perform while the better singers belt on the side. There’s that one girl in the chorus who smiles extra big all the time, and the kids moving across the stage as a group because they’ve all been given the same marks to hit. Most of the performers were white, but one black cowboy caught my eye, mostly because he seemed to be the best dancer among the men. After five years as a dance major I can’t help but guess a man’s sexuality by the way he dances, and it’s the only time in which my personal “gaydar” is anything but sub-par. I briefly wonder if it’s a form of discrimination to judge orientation based on dancing, but I’m pulled away from this thought when I hear them sing “…where the women are happy and never complain! TEXAS!”

The show continues. It is a fictional story, but the idea is that it could be the story of any of the panhandle settlers in the 1800s. I briefly think I’m going to get an infusion of old Mexican culture when they introduce what seems to be a prominent hispanic character, but her storyline is wrapped up within the first 20 minutes and we never see her again. At one point a native chief appears, but only in the “we are proud people and the white man is destroying the land with their guns and use of contractions” capacity. He only appears twice in the show, and the second time it’s in a magical dream-state-native-healing scene.

The StageAll that said, it was a generally entertaining show. The incorporation of live horses and full-sized carriages was a lot of fun. There were a few quality lines, including a man refraining from certain language because “there are women, children, and baptists present,” but if you’d like to know what he thinks of it simply “watch the south end of the northbound bull.” As darkness settled in the canyon, I started to realize that they were intentionally lighting the canyon wall behind the stage. The first act ended with a surprisingly poetic use of Beethoven’s Ninth to aid in character development, followed by a bright lightning flash and sparks to split open a large tree near the canyon wall that, until this moment, I thought was real.

Before we left our seats for intermission, two actors came out to give a short speech. They began by asking all of the veterans to stand and be acknowledged. It seemed a little out of place to me, but I suppose (especially in Texas) there is never a bad time to honor veterans. After the applause the actors explained that this show has been running every summer for 48 years, and they always use the same method to call people back from intermission: the dinner bell. They also have a tradition of giving away a souvenir dinner bell to the person who has traveled the farthest to see the show that night. In the decades that they have been doing this, they have never given the bell to anyone in the United States. They announce the name of tonight’s winner, a Bulgarian man. They also let us know that they are accepting donations for their scholarship program to help pay the actors, and that they have two Shakespeare shows every summer in addition to TEXAS.

After intermission the show continues, and at a certain point I have to stifle my giggles. The title song about the state. The two men after the same woman. The town dance in the middle where some trouble happens. The disagreements between cattlemen and farmers. The questions about what the railroad will bring when it comes to town. The dream ballet.  The unnecessary inclusion of excitement when printing the title. For the less musically literate, this is a spot on description of the musical “Oklahoma!”. Except, you know, TEXAS.

I was also smiling because the dream ballet is where things really started to pick up. Or rather, when things started to catch fire. One of the nightmare aspects displayed during the dream ballet was the prairie fire, in which a ballerina en pointe takes the stage in a costume covered in flowing pieces of red, orange, and yellow fabric. As the Prairie Fire herself proceeded with her dance attacks, small fires sprang up in the brushy area behind the stage. Flickering orange light hit the sides of the theater and a (stunt)man ran across the stage, lit up completely in actual fire.

The show came to a close, the poor characters got money, the rich character had a change of heart, and absolutely everyone got married. The actors came out for their curtain call and a voice on the loudspeaker encouraged the crowd to stick around for “Our Tribute to America.” Of course I’m staying.

The transition is seamless as the encore music fades right into the tribute music. Everyone has changed costumes so that they are now all red, white, and blue. There is more dancing, and patriotic songs. There are smooth scene changes as they change subjects. The voice on the loudspeakers tells us to remember the “first responders, police officers, firefighters, and of course the men and women of our armed forces.” A woman in black comes out to do a mournful dance as she accepts the folded flag of a dead soldier. The children come out and say the pledge of allegiance, and the entire audience stands. It starts to become a bit much for me. Spotlights follow men on horseback as they gallop across the back of the stage carrying the American and Texas flags. Fireworks start. And we’re talking about a lot of fireworks. As they start with the first verse of “America the Beautiful,” scenes of beautiful American landscapes are projected onto a stream of water behind a cowboy on a horse holding the American flag. I’m not making this up people.

Most amazing to me is the excessive use of fire and water. Texas is in the middle of a three-year drought. I haven’t been allowed to start a campfire in 1500 miles. I met a woman in New Mexico whose town was out of water. I see signs everywhere warning people not to light fireworks. I’ve been told to conserve water and be careful about fire for weeks, and here is a show that lights it’s entire open-air backdrop on fire, only to douse it in high-shot streams of water and fireworks 20 minutes later. But I suppose it’s America, so, priorities. I wonder what the Bulgarian thinks of all this.

TreesThe tribute ends, and the name TEXAS is projected on the canyon wall. On stage stands a single American flag waving so perfectly in the breeze that I honestly wonder if they’ve got a wind machine on it. Yes, it was excessive. By the end it was almost a parody of itself. And I start to wonder how expansive the musical theater scene is in the area around Amarillo. This may be it. It might be that the jazz concert I saw in Lubbock is the exception, not the rule, and Texas is just as uncultured and backwards as I’ve always been led to believe. If that’s the case, it could be a sad state indeed for those interested in theater in the panhandle. It may be too much for a yankee like me, but there’s a gay black cowboy with a song in his heart living in Amarillo. And for him at least, even in Texas, there’s TEXAS.

As for me, I went back to my campsite to set up my tent in the dark. It had been too hot and windy to set it up before the show. I got ready for bed and before turning in, I looked up at the sky. It had become my nightly routine in the desert, and my nightly disappointment. Every night I looked up hoping for stars, and every night all I saw was the bright shine of a nearly full supermoon. But this time, the moon rise was delayed by the high canyon walls. I looked up to see a sky full of stars, and even a bit of that fuzzy swash that makes up the Milky Way – the kind that’s so dim you can only see it if you look just off to the side. I stared up at the the greatness of the universe and smiled. Under my breath and without meaning to I quietly replied, “Texas.”

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3 thoughts on “TEXAS: Where the Wind Comes Sweeping Down the Plain

  1. Couldn’t help but think of the Badlands show I did in Medora ND in 1975. Similar basic concept and setting as your Palo Duro show, but without the over-the-top-waterfall-cowboy-flag-Americana-fireworks and the gay black cowboy dancer (we were definitely all white, probably not all straight, but you didn’t talk about that stuff back then).

    And I guess Wendy Davis didn’t get the memo about Texas women never complaining!

  2. Pingback: Viva las Branson | Better Than I Thought

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