by Eric Ginsburg
The vibe upstairs at the Carolina Theatre recalled a basement show, as about 45 people, including a contingent of teenagers, created a semicircle on the floor. Like any good house show, the setlist was infused with a political bent as performers crossed mediums and topics.
That’s exactly how Connor McLean, the primary force behind last weekend’s We Just Can’t Let Them Win Fest, wanted it. McLean, his tattoos extending down his arms past his shirt sleeves, pulled up some carpet right in front.
The event, which doubled as a release for McLean’s film Remember 7, was packed with a variety of performances, including two dance sets, stand-up comedy, spoken-word poetry and live music.
In light of the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, two people were added to the bill bearing poetic proclamations about Palestine. As a friend moved around the room holding up hand-drawn posters for the crowd to see, two girls took turns reading.
“War is not only physical, it is also mental,” one declared. “Speaking against Israel isn’t anti-Jewish, but anti-Zionist, anti-war, anti-murder and pro-humanity.”
Greensboro singer Laila Nur, wearing a tie-dye shirt and sounding like a politicized Jack Johnson, followed with a song called “Palestine.” Another song, which she dedicated to her “transgender homies,” came from a perspective of a trans child looking for love and acceptance from their parents.
“Could you love me now that I am a boy?” the chorus asked. At another point she sang, “I could teach you how to love thy neighbor.”
Other elements of the festival were less overt, including a solo dance piece by Amy Harrill or a live mural painting by Phillip Link and Don Morgan on a canvas outside the theater. To those who know McLean, the event exemplified him as a person, encompassing a cross-section of artistic expression, unity and resistance.
Several of the people involved have crossed paths with him previously and were pulled in for the large-scale event, including Harrill who choreographed his play Die Capital! But one of the evening’s most powerful performances came from a group outside the Triad — Charlotte-based Guerrilla Poets.
“We haven’t been arrested yet but I’m excited for the day we are because then in the jail cell when they ask why we were arrested I can say, ‘Poetry,’” one of the members said as she introduced her “flash mob” spoken-word poetry group that has performed without permission in big-box stores including Walmart.
The three group members delivered their pieces with an urgency and intensity echoed in the spoken-word pieces about Palestine and several performed by Kayla Lewis. Noting that they are proud to be “the common-man’s poets” aimed at getting mill workers through a late-night shift or helping a woman leave her abusive husband, the Guerrilla Poets moved expertly through emotional and insightful lines.
“It’s having a spirit too strong for your body to interpret,” one said of high-functioning autism.
The strongest poem — an accounting of suicide attempts by the author and her friend, and a plea for action around teen suicide — closed out the set, reverberating through attendees before they moved downstairs for McLean’s film.
The audience swelled as the movie’s start time approached, flowing into the theater to witness the debut of the comedic and absurd Remember 7. Starring McLean — a High Point native of staggering acting talent — as the lead, the film chronicles an aspiring screenwriter’s participation in a competitive, fictional TV show called “So You Think You Can Write.”
But first, McLean took the stage, and with a nonchalant attitude expertly oscillated between jokes and a call to arms.
“Critical thought requires we do more thinking than a black and white, antagonists and protagonists plot,” McLean said, describing his unconventional approach to scriptwriting. “We were in the negative doing this film…. Money produces a certain type of labor and community produces another kind of labor.”
As he thanked an extensive list of people who donated their time to the film in a variety of roles, McLean admitted that to an extent he didn’t know what he was doing but had “decided to just totally crap out a movie.”
But Remember 7 is a pure triumph. It’s difficult to recall seeing any movie — with any budget — that paralleled the humor or wry humanity of the film. Be it a priceless sequence of a bizarre, music video version of a mumbling cover of “She Drives Me Crazy” by the Fine Young Cannibals or a shot of an alien delighting in gummy bears, McLean’s comedic brilliance shines throughout. There’s a dreamlike sequence where McLean’s character — in Revolutionary War garb — shouts Rage Against the Machine lyrics to wear down his enemy and a scene where he is on his bed —set up in a kitchen — crying hysterically and gripping his cat.
“We’re a powerhouse,” he whimpers to the cat, before it wriggles free and incites more sobbing.
The entire film isn’t meant to be funny — McLean’s character moves between different genres as assigned by the TV competition, often dryly making fun of each genre’s conventions. At times the focus shifts to existentialism or the deconstruction of patriarchy, pivots to grapple with the definitions of success and personal identity, or to dwell in the surreal.
That multiplicity of aims added to the genius of Remember 7, which also showcases a number of other skilled actors. But for those merely looking to crack up and let it all hang out, a short video plea by McLean before the showing had the audience in fits. In a hilarious fit of faux seriousness, McLean appears on camera — at first shirtless in bed, then in a field in a suit — to ask the viewer to help fund his long-desired move to try his hand at the big time in Los Angeles.
If he can get out there and there’s anyone with sense left in Hollywood, he’ll go far.