Arena Stage’s ‘Jubilee’

Though he has staged plays, musicals and even operas around the world, Tazewell Thompson is especially embraced around his DC homebase as a consummate showman. He’s one of those gifted people who intuitively knows an audience’s wishes and grants them in abundance, making them glad they bought a ticket.

Thompson’s latest “written and directed by” creation, despite its structural shortcomings, should make most audiences glad indeed. The world premiere production of Jubilee runs at Arena Stage in southwest Washington until June 9.

The story comes to us from history, though for reasons at the heart of the narrative, few details are known. In the aftermath of the Civil War – and, for African-Americans, the often more baffling aftermath of emancipation – a few colleges were opened to serve them on a shoestring. Crumbling abandoned buildings, poorly or unpaid faculty and staff, nearly nonexistent textbooks – that was the day to day life of places like Fisk University in Nashville.

Thirteen men and women of Fisk, teachers and students, decided to use their singing voices to raise enough money to keep the doors open another day. They did so by singing for the world a genre of music unique to their people – the Negro spiritual.

The genre is ever-familiar to most, and yet also ever-not. It’s the ultimate contribution of African Americans to the Great American songbook, fusing and re-fusing over the decades into secular forms like jazz and blues, many would even suggest rock and roll. Yet its existence as a balm to the suffering of slaves made both sides of the black-white divide reluctant to grant it “too much” power. It reminded too powerfully.

Often, as in mainstream Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s, the music is reduced to a raucous religious and cultural “back of town” celebration of a people too primitive to make real music. These, in the movies, were often called “darky numbers,” and they are painful for us to watch today. At least they should be.

Jubilee delivers this essential American birthright from such hate-fueled distortions as surely as, we’re assured, the Lord delivered Daniel from the lion’s den. The arrangements of the most familiar spirituals – “Go Down Moses,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Balm in Gilead,” “Wade in the Water” – are, like all the three dozen songs gathered here, arranged for maximum complexity (and minimum grinning and hand-clapping) by veteran Thompson collaborator Dianne Adams McDowell.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers (known to themselves as “The Jubes”), portrayed by seven talented women and six talented men, perform the songs entirely a cappella. Presumably the lack of instrumental accompaniment makes the always surprising vocal harmonies all the more desirable. Most in the Arena Stage audience also seem to understand, whatever their level of musical knowledge, that such singing requires special care and skill. In the course of evoking the Fisk Singers’ three tours by train and ocean liner, including a landmark command performance for Queen Victoria in London, this show is all about the singing.

And that, in the end, suggests its only weakness. It’s a safe bet that by the end of Act I, many in the audience don’t know a single character’s name, his or her feelings about anything, or what his or her story might be. As though to make up for this, Thompson pours information into Act II (albeit quite skillfully), giving each character a swift chance at self-identification and, at show’s end, self-obituary. What speaking there is in Jubilee tends toward the lively, the nuanced and even the funny. By the end, characters have managed to carve out a bit of human uniqueness. Yet the two acts remain unwieldly that way, which may well be something to tweak as the show moves forward from its world premiere. Which it should.

For these reasons, giving additional heartbreaking testimony to the lack of biography left by African Americans of the late 19th century, the cast exists more as a singing group than as individual actors playing individual characters. Lisa Arrindell stands out, not at all as her listed “Ella Sheppard” but as the three other personages she deftly slips into, all of them white.

Arrindell’s speaking voice becomes, in these moments, the voice African Americans heard far too often for a century, back then and some would say even now. She becomes a white Southern society matron who lets the group sing at her home to raise money but instead sends them home with food from the kitchen, the ensemble’s chorus master ironically named Mr. White, and even Queen Victoria. She also lets White’s interactions, especially during one breathtaking rehearsal of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” transcend the “white man’s burden” patronizing we first fear to become a tangled, struggling gift of love.

Throughout the evening, Shaleah Adkisson, Joy Jones, Zonya Love, Sean-Maurice Lynch, K. Sandy McIlwain, Aundi Marie Moore, Simone Paulwell, Travis Pratt, Katherine Alexis Thomas, Bueka Uwemedimo, Greg Watkins and Jaysen Wright sing magnificently, few with complete solos but most with solo moments.

The production of Jubilee couldn’t be simpler – an open space (with movable chairs and one all-important Victrola) designed by Donald Eastman, period costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh, lighting by Robert Wierzel, sound by Fabian Obisbo and especially projections by Shawn Duan. Those last are the only true set changes Jubilee gets. They’re the only set changes Jubilee needs.

Photos by Margot Schulman   

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