A Mummer in 2019; Judges gather for a lunch before the 2020 parade

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Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

The judges for the Mummers Parade met up on Monday to grab lunch and some last-minute tips from city leaders. The city’s biggest ask in advance of the 119-year-old New Year’s Day party:

Can you guys be a little nicer?

Philly Assistant Managing Director Leo Dignam said he’s gotten complaints in recent years from groups that say they have performed their hearts out, then received scores of 0 out of 40. Other performers reported a lack of constructive feedback on their comment cards.

Gathered around a table at the Mummers Museum in Pennsport, Dignam told the judges to be a little bit more thoughtful — and quit giving out so many zeroes.

Especially to the new participants. And to kids.

“But what if the kid is just standing there?” one judge protested at the meeting.

“If they wake up at 5 o’ clock in the morning and they’re marching, give them a few points,” said Dignam, who’s been parade organizer for more than a decade. “It’s like the SATs. You get 200 points for putting your name on it.”

Dignam had some other hot tips at the Monday luncheon at the Mummers Museum, including this clarification: “Stop making fun of minorities, OK?”

He and his colleagues also outlined the parade’s basic satirical strategy, which is that you can “swing up, but not swing down.” That means celebrities and politicians are fair game. Regular people — especially those who experience oppression — are not.

Apparently it’s an uphill battle for Mummers leadership to get their judges to be kind. Dignam handed everyone a sheet of paper with recommended comments that are “supportive,” or offer an opportunity for “growth” to groups that are less than stunning.

Some of the example comments the city suggested judges use:

  • “Great eye contact throughout your presentation!”
  • “Practice, practice, practice.”
  • “Wow! Great idea! Really creative! Why didn’t I think of that!”
  • “Not terribly original. Next year, dare to be bold!”
  • “Everyone in the presentation knew their roles and handled their responsibilities well!”

The push for kindness is part of an overall effort to introduce inclusiveness to the New Year’s Day celebration — which has roots in minstrelsy and in past years has hosted racist and transphobic performances.

“We started this little training process three years ago to tell them, ‘Be positive,’” Dignam told Billy Penn after the luncheon. “We want people to learn from their mistakes and be better next year.”

Otherwise, the Mummers director worries, the parade won’t get any new members, and one day it’ll fall by the wayside.

Swaying judges who’ve been on the job for decades

Judging the Mummers Parade is a tough gig. There are five categories that need ranking — comics, fancy, fancy brigade, wench brigade and string band — and then a bunch of subdivisions within each category.

In total, the parade requires 35 judges, many of whom have been doing the job for upwards of 40 years. Before that, most of them were Mummers themselves.

Christian DuComb is a theater historian at Colgate University. He performed as a Mummer for four years, then wrote the book Haunted City: Three Centuries of Racial Impersonation in Philadelphia. He said judging has long been the most exclusive part of the annual festivities.

“If you’re an African American drill team, or a Puerto Rican bomba group, or a Chinese New Year association,” DuComb said in an interview, “how do you fit into that, especially when the structure is based on this turn-of-the-20th-century cinematic history?”

In the 1920s, many judges systematically discriminated against Black groups — to the point that they’d drop out entirely. As recently as the 1970s, Dignam said, groups were judged by local politicians and celebrities, who were powerful enough to single-handedly pick their favorite group to win.

The judges have gotten a bad enough rap among some participants that many don’t pay attention to their scores — they just perform for fun.

Antoine Mapp is the director of the 28-person Black drill team West Powelton Drummers, which joined the Mummers festivities four years ago.

“[The judges] might not understand what we do because we’re not a traditional Mummer group,” Mapp said. “We don’t march with our legs up high. We urbanize it, we make it cool for the kids in our community that want to do it.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...