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Philadelphia's Mummers Parade Will Now Be Culturally Appropriate

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Mummers Parade in Philadelphia is thought to be the oldest folk parade in the country. Since 1901, participants have marched up Broad Street dressed in extravagant costumes every New Year's Day. Their routines often satirize current events or pop culture, and sometimes they can be offensive. So this year the Mummers went through sensitivity training to help them rein in their antics. From member station WHYY, here's Peter Crimmins.

PETER CRIMMINS, BYLINE: The Mummers have a long history of getting into trouble. In the 19th century, guys would dress up on New Year's Day and horse around their neighborhoods, doing a lot of drinking and fighting. So in 1901, the city of Philadelphia convinced them to march up Broad Street together, largely to keep an eye on them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRALINGER STRING BAND REHEARSAL)

CRIMMINS: This year a few days before Christmas, about 60 musicians congregated in an IKEA parking lot in South Philadelphia to practice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRALINGER STRING BAND REHEARSAL)

CRIMMINS: This is the Fralinger String Band. It's been around for over a century, and like most Mummers clubs, it spends the better part of the year putting together its costumes and routines. Saxophonist Steve Coper has worn face paint, donned sequins and marched every New Year's Day for 47 years.

STEVE COPER: It's a four-and-a-half-minute semiprofessional production, and we're very proud of that. However, when we do pick themes, we have to be aware of modern times.

CRIMMINS: The Mummers are a lot less raucous than they were a century ago, but some still manage to get in trouble.

COPER: There was a lot of anger last year with several of the things that happened.

CRIMMINS: That's because last year some Mummers depicted Latinos by wearing brownface and dressing their children as tacos, still others mocked Caitlyn Jenner. Another group made fun of the Black Lives Matter movement. The routines were captured on bystanders' cellphones and posted online. And Rue Landau, the director of Philadelphia's Commission on Human Relations, heard all about it.

RUE LANDAU: Every year the Commission on Human Relations gets informal complaints about Mummers skits.

CRIMMINS: So this year, Landau coordinated a program of sensitivity training for the Mummers to teach the fundamentals of cultural appropriation and some basics about the lesbian, gay and transgender community. Workshops were held in bars and community centers around town. Jennifer Childs, a local theater performer, led one of them on the difference between appropriate and offensive satire.

JENNIFER CHILDS: Part of this is joyous. A part of this is going, like, wow, you guys spent a year sewing sequins on that outfit, you look amazing. You want people talking about that, not about, oh, did you see that jackass with, you know, blackface on?

CRIMMINS: The training was entirely voluntary. And Landau, the Human Relations commissioner, says nobody knows what's going to happen this New Year's Day until it happens.

LANDAU: We just had an election of what - somebody sends a message out to all of America, say and do whatever you want to do. And you have the Mummers leadership saying pull it together, reel it in. So if there's ever been a challenge for the Mummers, this is the year.

CRIMMINS: For NPR News, I'm Peter Crimmins in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLAR BEAR SONG, "PEEPERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.