At its best, music has the potential to heal broken hearts, inspire the downtrodden, encourage us when courage fails — even transport into the past when our ancestors lived — those days of “yay and nay.”
And as those in the greater Washington area have come to expect, Arena Stage in Southwest, led by Molly Smith, artistic director, Edgar Dobie, executive producer and with the magic touch of Tazewell Thompson, captures the sounds and souls of the historic Fisk Jubilee Singers in their latest production — the world premiere of “Jubilee.”
Tazewell, in the dual role of both playwright and director, provides a history lesson in song with an innovative, heart-stirring score and a talented cast that combine in the retelling of the rich legacy of the Fisk Jubilee Singers — an American a cappella ensemble who continue to perform Negro spirituals originally sung by slaves prior to the Civil War.
If you missed this production, it’s certainly your loss. But be encouraged as you can still set your radar on today’s Jubilee Singers who tour and record, well aware of the responsibility they bear as they stand on the shoulders of that group of unknown singers, most of them teenagers and former slaves, who took their inspiring musical message on the road for the first time on November 16, 1871. (The group’s recording “Bright Mansions” remains available for purchase and serves as their most popular collection of songs).
As they touched down on the campus of Oberlin College in Ohio to perform for a national convention of ministers, they unwittingly introduced a new genre to the public that has since become an American tradition. Tazewell resurrects those early years when the Singers journeyed throughout the U.S. and Europe, sharing sacred music — “secret messages” formed and communicated by enslaved Africans and Blacks who lived in the South just after the Civil War.
The cast of 13 singers, along with Musical Director Dianne Adams McDowell, present several dozen spirituals, capably capturing our attention with a capella singing that unveils a time in American history in which former slaves amazingly overcame racism, poverty and racism.
Aundi Marie Moore offers a commanding performance in the role of soprano Maggie Porter — a member of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers often referred to as the group’s “diva.” She’s joined by the phenomenal tenor Travis Pratt playing Isaac Dickerson as well as Lisa Arrindell who tackles several roles including another Jubilee standout, Ella Sheppard, Queen Victoria and a Southern belle who hosts a tea during which the Fisk Jubilee Singers perform.
In fact, not only does the cast achieve success in their performance of the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ songbook but we are invited to learn the names and stories of those youth who comprised the 13 original members of the “Jub” as they called themselves. Not only did the “Jub” save their financially-strapped university from being shut down, they also saved the Negro spirituals from being lost forever.
Hymns and spirituals rendered during the show include “Wade in the Water,” “Ain’t That Good News,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” — songs once heard only by Africans stolen from their native land or their progeny — songs sung in the fields while they labored or behind closed doors and away from the purview of their captors.
Musicologist and former Jubilee Singers Musical Director Horace C. Boyer shares words about the inaugural performance of the ensemble and the effect it had on both the mostly-white audience and the singers themselves.
“All of a sudden, there was no talking,” he says on the Jubilee Singers website. “They said you could hear the soft weeping … and I’m sure that the Jubilee Singers were joining them in tears because sometimes when you think about what you are singing, particularly if you believe it, you can’t help but be moved.”