Play at Ashe explores the drama behind the Indian suits

For the Mardi Gras Indians known as the Guardians of the Flame, costuming is serious business.

They spend months and a small fortune creating their “suits.”

The end result is well-known to locals, but what’s the story of the men and women in those gorgeous costumes?

The stage play “Pretty Ugly Before Pretty, Pretty” hopes to answer that question, and it’s playing at the Ashé Theater on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 25 and Oct. 26.

Director John Grimsley admits that, despite living in New Orleans all his life, creating a show about the group was a learning experience.

He said he hopes the show will help audiences get to know the Indians in the dazzling suits.

“What we’re trying to do with the production is show a little bit more about the people that are involved and what brings them to the gang,” Grimsley said.

The show is a series of interconnected songs and monologues based on real experiences.

It tells the stories of the Elders, who want to preserve the group’s traditions, and the younger grandson of the group’s founder, Big Chief Brian Harrison Nelson, who had to choose between the freedom of the West Coast and the responsibilities of chiefdom back home.

“Brian has to decide whether or not he’s going to continue with the culture and such. He’s also a young guy, so for instance he doesn’t care if a woman is Big Chief, while the elders are saying, ‘No, no, no!”

While helping turn the stories of the Guardians of the Flame into a theatrical performance, Grimsley saw that the group is more than just a tradition; it’s a family.

“For the people who are involved it’s a very healthy thing. I’ve talked with some of the parents whose kids are starting to be involved, and they really enjoy the idea of having the kids being involved in this tradition and culture.

“It’s a good thing, and we need more of those positive things for the young people here in New Orleans.”

Grimsley thinks audiences who only know the public face of the Guardians of the Flame will walk out of the show with a newfound appreciation for all the hard work and dedication that goes into looking so darn pretty year after year.

“They’re going to find out things about the Indians that we only assume and really don’t know, and it’s a celebration of the culture with all the wrinkles and all the wonderful things too.”

“Pretty Ugly Before Pretty, Pretty”

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 25 and 26

DETAILS: Co-presented by the Guardians of the Flame Cultural Arts Society

WHERE: Ashé Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha C Haley Blvd., New Orleans

INFO: (504) 569-9070

www.ashecac.org/main/