The impending 2012 apocalypse was an obvious thematic choice for members of Krewe du Vieux — humorous doom and gloom, puns and portmanteaus involving death and anything else are right up the krewe's alley. Instead, it opted for a different theme, one that draws attention to a local women's rights organization — but the krewe isn't skimping on its gratuitous sex jokes and paper mache penises. Krewe captain Lee Mullikin notes, however, "There's not so many penises this year."
This year's Krewe du Vieux, now in its 26th year as the city's unofficial first downtown Carnival parade, chose Women with a Vision director and New Orleans native Deon Haywood as its queen. Founded in 1991 (and co-founded by Haywood's mother), Women with a Vision is a New Orleans-based organization helping improve the lives of women through health programs and legal and professional aid. Krewe du Vieux chose "Crimes Against Nature" as this year's theme, reflecting one of Women with a Vision's headlining issues: Louisiana's laws concerning solicitation for "crimes against nature," or oral and anal sex. (The 200-year-old laws separate the solicitation of oral and anal sex, or "unnatural carnal copulation," from prostitution, which civil rights advocates argue singles out women and gay and transgender people, who are forced to register as sex offenders if convicted while those convicted of prostitution do not.)
"We're a match made in heaven," Haywood says. "We're willing to push the limit to see justice happen for people nobody would speak for, and Krewe du Vieux is willing to push the limit to show you what you should be thinking about."
The krewe infamously lampoons politicians and satirizes headlines in wild fashion — this year, "Occupy," the Superdome, the Mayan-predicted end of the world (and combinations of two or three) are some of the subjects the 16 subkrewes will target. But "Crimes Against Nature" will lead the pack.
"It's like the collective unconsciousness — I mean, drunkenness," Mullikin says. "We wanted to celebrate New Orleans in a typically anachronistic way — climbing out of the 18th century or something. ... Sometimes we play it safe, sometimes we're obscure, but that (theme) struck me as something that wasn't political. It was a humanistic thing."
Women with a Vision began as a response to HIV/AIDS in African-American communities but has grown to "fight for people who don't have a voice," Haywood says. When the krewe approached Haywood about reigning as its queen, she thought, "You're shitting me," she says. "It's Krewe du Vieux, and if you've been here you know that krewe pushes the limits on everything — they'd recognize our work around the solicitation of crimes against nature law, and what that means for us and the people affected by it."
As Krewe du Vieux approaches the end of its third decade, the krewe leaders acknowledge they are beginning to pass the torch. "I came here when I was about 30 years old. I'm 62 now. I've been doing it all my life," Mullikin says. "We're looking to see if it's going to be a smooth transition. We have a bunch of forty-somethings who are looking pretty good. The thirty-somethings are starting to make babies ... But there are people who'd wish we'd burn the whole thing and start over again. 'Hey, it was a good run.'"
"I have friends that met in my subkrewe, got married and their daughter is now of legal age and marching," says Keith Twitchell. "Someone's got to push my wheelchair for when I'm too old and decrepit to march anymore. ... I'll probably have my funeral in the parade."
Mullikin jokes that one year the krewe might line up without moving. ("We'll stand still while everyone walks past us," he says.) And as the krewe ages and grows, it also fears becoming what it hated: a "bead-throwing krewe" it set out to mock in the first place. So far it's kept as quiet as possible (the krewe is tight-lipped about its membership and float themes), and tried to avoid crowd sizes that would jeopardize its route through the French Quarter. But the Polo Club Lounge at the Windsor Court named a drink after the krewe, and Mullikin remembers the fine-dining crowds asking waiters to hold their tables while they caught the parade.
"We don't want to blow our own horn too much. We don't want our crowds to get so big they won't let us march anymore. But we don't want to pretend like we don't exist," says Mullikin, who hopes the krewe "educates people to dance with us, laugh, look at what we're doing."
The krewe's 1,000 members, floats and brass bands parade Saturday, Feb. 4, through the Faubourg Marigny and French Quarter, beginning at the Habitat for Humanity Restore on Royal Street at 6:30 p.m. The parade's "crime (against nature) map" has the parade moving from Royal Street to Frenchmen Street and Decatur Street, up Toulouse Street to Royal Street and down Ursulines Street, back to Decatur heading toward the Marigny.
"A little figure eight," Mullikin says. "The 'end of the world' route."