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A Civil Rights Journey with ‘Stirring the Waters Across America’

Stories Told Through Song, Dance and Historical Readings

Who knew that 65 years of civil and human rights history could be packaged into a 90-minute production?

Nolan Williams Jr. figured it out in his production “Stirring the Waters Across America,” workshopped at The REACH, the new Kennedy Center performance and education venue. Williams conceived, composed and served as music director for the production. Eric Ruffin directed a sprawling piece touching key civil rights milestones. The pace moved and grooved in a manner the kept one engaged in the thought-provoking subject matter.

“This work started last year, thinking about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King,” said Williams as he introduced the workshop to a packed rehearsal room. “I looked around the city and asked the question, ‘Who is doing anything to commemorate this anniversary?’ I couldn’t find anyone doing that, so I said, ‘I need to do that.'”

“Stirring the Waters” brings together new arrangements of Negro spirituals and songs from the civil rights movement performed by a quintet and a group of talented singers/actors. A little spoken word was tossed in with quotes from the leaders of “the movement.” Modern dance intermingled with Williams’ music choreographed by Kiana Eboné provided a nice touch to bridge songs and words.

For the past 16 years, Williams has been the music director for “Let Freedom Ring” the annual concert honoring the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Connected with the King birthday program, Georgetown University has commissioned Williams to compose new music for the Kennedy Center concert. He has been more than ready to bring forth “Stirring the Waters.”

New arrangements for the 12 songs in “Stirring the Waters” were illustrated with black and white photos, newspaper clips, and videos projected on a large screen that followed America’s path toward equality. Onscreen were the trying times of Rosa Parks and the other women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the heartache of four little girls killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, the bravery of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. And many more milestones were depicted on the screen against the backdrop of songs composed by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Williams.

As Ruffin brought to reality the vision for “Stirring the Waters.” He began to put together pieces working with actors at Howard University where he teaches acting and directing. Ruffin spoke about staging small mountings of “Stirring the Waters” before a few select audiences.

“Years ago, we presented a fragmented evening, but still with the same sort of spirit at the French Embassy,” said Ruffin. “We then presented before the Supreme Court and for Emancipation Day for Mayor Muriel Bowser.

A significant accomplishment with “Stirring the Waters” was seeing the multigenerational appeal. The musical arrangements were vibrantly contemporary. The cast engaging the audience with Williams’ original composition “I’ve Got a Right to Vote” could easily become an anthem for the 2020 election year. But the most startling, impactful moment was seeing photos of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin side by side onscreen. Teens murdered for being teens. It was a reminder that the country still has a long way to go.

The titular song that opened and closed the production is a reimagining of the Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

“Dr. King called the freedom songs and the spirituals the soundtrack of the movement,” Williams said. “He recognized the power the music played in motivating people. In that spirit, I have drawn from some of those pieces.”

Though the workshop for “Stirring the Waters Across America” was for evaluating and tweaking, similar to previews for plays or musicals going to Broadway, it’s difficult to see what more needs to be done to perfect “Stirring the Waters.” Williams said they are still experimenting with the production. It feels just right — right now.

“Stirring the Waters Across America” was presented by NEWorks Productions in partnership with Edgewood with the support of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, go to neworksproductions.com/stirring-the-waters-across-america.html.

“Stirring the Waters Across America” was presented by NEWorks Productions in partnership with Edgewood with the support of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, go to neworksproductions.com/stirring-the-waters-across-america.html.

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