They came dancing, swaying and stomping — humans or ants, waterfowl, purple mushrooms, giant alligators and random salamanders? No matter. They reveled to a rhythmic beat against a backdrop of blue skies and green meadows. But when the vultures with money dripping from inside of their wings swooped in, the earthmovers followed, and the backdrop flipped from green to gray. Still, the music flowed on, and the animals regrouped, surged in and absorbed the forces of destruction. Together all danced onward for the joyous finale of the Vaudevillains’ 2023 Mummers performance: “Marsh Madness — Wet and Wild at the Unpaved Rave.”
The Vaudevillains NYB, a queer, femme-led New Year’s Mummers brigade in the comics division, is an eclectic group of individuals from all walks of life who come together from across the city and beyond to create performances with a point. Melissa MacNair (she/they), one of the three brigade captains along with Al San Valentin and KL Miller, described the group as a family that practices radical joy and speaks out in defense of open and healthy communities. The 2023 march sent a clear message to city leaders: take your hands off our green spaces.
In the past year, City officials authorized the felling of hundreds of trees, including some old-growth giants, in two locations. The first strike hit along the western side of the Cobbs Creek golf course. Hundreds of trees — including native species — lay in ruin, and before the dust settled the earthmovers’ maw struck again. The second clearcutting authorized by officials ravaged a beloved pandemic refuge: the South Philly Meadows in FDR park.
After these events and many discussions and emails, the Vaudevillains adopted a theme portraying the forces of nature against the destroyers for a 2023 protest theme. “We’re about speaking truth to power,” MacNair said. “One thing that spoke to me the most is [that] people who live in the city and who don’t have cars are losing access to untouched natural spaces. Philadelphia is becoming a city where nature is inaccessible to people in a certain economic class.”
To the uninitiated, the idea of a Mummers performance as an activist protest might be confusing. The Mummers Museum website describes the celebration as the oldest continuous folk parade in the United States, and the first formal celebration in 1901 was based on the old practices of parading through the streets on New Year’s performing skits, reciting poems and dancing — and sometimes even knocking on doors to demand food and drink. The modern comics brigades are known for satire. The parade has also been criticized over the years for tolerating hate.
Previous Mummers Parades were marred by actions such as racist performances in blackface — officially banned for years. MacNair and her allies believe that the way to make things better is to work from within. “The Mummers have had a tradition of harm including racism, misogyny and homophobia. As a captain, I reach out to other captains [of other brigades] to encourage people to speak up for what it is, a beautiful community celebration, and to disown the imagery of hate. We try to model a place where people feel safe in their personal growth.”
Today in her role as a co-captain, MacNair not only helps organize the planning process, which has been complicated by COVID-19, but also fights for “Philadelphians to have safe, inclusive and joyous spaces for the community celebration. Dancing in the streets in dazzling costumes, you see peoples’ faces light up. There’s really nothing like it.”
MacNair wasn’t born into the tradition; she was drafted after a friend spotted her wearing an elaborate bat costume of her own design. “I was working in the service industry. I’d just quit a toxic job, and it was almost Halloween. I wanted to make the best Halloween costume.” MacNair created a giant bat and went to a party where someone from the Vaudevillains said, “Oh my God, we need bats. I love bats. They’re so cute!”
MacNair marched for the first time in 2016. “It was absolutely the best day of my life,” she said. “That year every time I spread my wings some kid’s face lit up.”
MacNair, who has a sculpture background, has been a co-captain since 2020. “I have the personality that I start doing what needs to be done.” Over the years the Vaudevillains developed a process that allows them to pull their performance together even though many of their members live far apart. Despite that, the troupe is known for composing their own music, choreographing the dances and sewing their own costumes.
According to MacNair, each year everything begins with some brainstorming over an email chain to determine their theme. Group members consider events and topics affecting the community and what metaphor will work for the parade. “People bring lots of opinions to the discussion,” said MacNair. “It’s a chance to become more aware. There’s a lot of information to process.”
By summer the co-captains have a few solid ideas and weigh the logistical factors. “We have two minutes to do a dance in costume, so we think about what is going to read and what isn’t,” she said. In addition, the captains consider the fundraising requirements for equipment rental and supplies. Members contribute annual dues, which vary depending on the fabric required for their costumes and range from $75 to $100. The dues don’t cover all of the costs, but the group holds fundraisers like dance parties to make up the difference.
Over the summer and fall months, MacNair and her co-captains and choreographers put together dance routines and post them on YouTube for their members. Individuals practice on their own, and then, between Christmas and New Year’s, members gather for the live practice in Space 1026. After the second Saturday of December, “we move in [and] we’re all DIY,” MacNair said.
The group is open to new members throughout the year. “We love getting new members. My heart is overflowing with the people who joined. We have a Baltimore crew. Some are made up of people who left Philly and come back for New Year’s,” she said.
Unlike MacNair, Nik Ronca (they/them) grew up watching the Mummers Parades. But “I stopped when things got ugly,” they said. Ronca joined the brigade last year after they ran into a friend who convinced them that the group’s inclusive values would work for them. Then their best friend, Angie Elwell, signed up as well and the pair went to work on costumes.
“We were randoms, Sally and Mander, the salamanders,” they said. Random performers dance among the group members, but aren’t required to memorize a choreographed dance routine. However, their skill sets — Ronca is a professional tailor and Elwell a make-up artist with 17 years of experience — transferred perfectly for the endeavor.
Ronca also related to the nature theme for this year’s parade. During the pandemic they had the experience of getting outside as a member of Planet Skateness. “Getting outside saved me. The thought of losing those spaces is not something I can bear. People deserve access to natural spaces. In Philadelphia they’re an underappreciated resource.”
Thanks to their skating friends and the Vaudevillains, Ronca said they’re in a good place. “I have a better community than I’ve ever had in my life. To be immediately welcomed in a large group of queer folks and have my experience validated, honored and cherished was very healing. The biggest joy is that everyone makes their own costumes in this brigade. They’re highly passionate individuals in spandex, [and] seeing the reactions to the costumes was pretty magical.”
Ronca’s three children (5, 7 and 8) watched the parade with their grandmother. When Ronca joined them afterwards wearing their participation badge with a ribbon, the kids said, “You won!” “And I thought, ‘Yeah, I did!’” Ronca remembers. Maybe next year Ronca’s children will get involved. “They would have to make their own costumes, though,” Ronca said.
The Vaudevillains believe the process of coming together to learn and create opens a path forward for healthier communities. Members learn about issues like the need to protect trees and green spaces. In the beginning, “I wasn’t aware of the battle to protect the Meadows,” MacNair said. But by the end of that two-minute performance, everyone danced toward the vision that MacNair describes as a space “where all Philadelphians can come and get some much-needed brightness.”
People interested in learning more about the Vaudevillains can find them at: