Monday, December 22, 2008

Craig Harris' God's Trombones - Revisiting James Weldon Johnson through Music-Drama

[Picture Above: Harlem Artist, Aaron Douglas' God's Trombones, 1926]

I saw God's Trombones Sunday, December 7 with mom at Harlem Stage.

Craig Harris
does jazz, and he does jazz just right. If you don’t know about him, look him up.

Full disclosure, I’m a bit partial to this piece, as I encountered it first during my day job at the Apollo. The Apollo Theater has supported the development of this unique work of music-theatre--in the Apollo Salon Series in 2006, and a during two-week run in 2007.

God’s Trombones is a set of musical, dramatic, and sermonic pieces derived from James Weldon Johnson’s collection of poems of the same name. Craig Harris has taken that core text and set it to music, with four voices, keyboards, drums, a euphonium, tuba, and full trombone shout choir. It’s a very interesting 21st-century mix of early 20th century poetry and musical forms--Trombone Choirs have a long history in the US and Europe, and Shout Bands are an under-explored facet of musical culture in the American South. This was an evocative experience that feels timely, very “right now,” even as its roots in form and substance are nearly a century removed.

The musicianship here was first rate. I particularly enjoyed the organ solos, and of course some of Craig Harris’ own trombone features. But the band is at its best when it lays down those bluesy, full harmonies with thumping, down-home rhythms – that, yes, we get from the church.

It’s a beautiful piece that I thoroughly enjoy every time I see it. Avery Brooks directed this version, with my good friend Elizabeth Herron as assistant director. There were some changes since I saw it last. For one, there were two male voices and two female singing voices (instead of a signing trio with a fourth speaking voice last time). This means the songs made use of four part harmony. This vocal troupe also cultivated an ensemble blend, whereas the prior version really pushed forward the contrast between the different voices.

As suggested in the title, God definitely is present in this work. It has a transcendent element rooted in Western theological ideals. This is familiar territory for me. The idiom at work here is the Church, the black church. At the same time, this is no heavy-handed evangelical event. I think it’s pretty inviting to a general audience, regardless of religious background.

I also think there is more room to get into the “drama” of the music-drama. Much of this is achieved through the staging, textual rendition and dance. A single dancer helps tell some of the story. This works. Yet watching God’s Trombones this second go round, I see opportunities to bring the drama to the fore. The audience feels it; the band feels it; the vocalists feel it; the dancer feels it. But not with the exuberant abandon I see so often in the black church (from the shout to the shout out to the fall out). Everything is under firm control on stage, yet I think there is a way to access more raw emotion in way that is both sincere and sensitive, not overblown. But that’s just me, perhaps.

God's Trombones
Featuring: Craig Harris (conductor + trombone)
Kevin Anthony (vocals)
Gina Breedlove (vocals)
LaTanya Hall (vocals)
Trent Kendall (vocals)
Alfred Patterson (trombone)
Curtis Fowlkes (trombone)
Gary Valente (trombone)
Joe Daley (euphonium)
Adam Klipple (keyboards)
Tony Lewis (drums)
Bob Stewart (tuba)
and dance by Chanon Judson.

That’s all.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Yep. It’s almost time to get things in line for 2009.
And that means a review of 2008 is on the way.

In a few weeks I’ll be posting all the ups and downs of my writing and production projects in 2008, setting up the plan for the new year.

But until then, I’ve come up with this preliminary list of RESOLUTIONS for 2009.

I can’t compete with team Obama in 08. They did the most, they did it GREAT! But there’s still plenty of shine to go around, and I’m gonna get my shine:


1. Make Major Paper (that means cash-money)

2. Put Major Paper in THE BANK! (that means don’t spend it up)

3. Get Love, Keep Love, Give Love, Spread Love (that means be good to folk)

4. Keep It Together – because if you ‘keep it together,’ then you don’t have to ‘get it together,’ and if you don’t have to ‘get it together,’ then nobody will say you don’t ‘have it together.’

5. Get your Stroll Rollin’ and Move On Down the Line – that means make progress with stuff.

These here are my RESOLUTIONS and I aim to keep them! With these resolutions I am sure to OPTIMIZE MY SHINE. That’s a true statement. Put some butter on it if you find it hard to swallow.

That’s it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Opening Night, on stage, on screen, on my mind.

So, as usual, I’ve been taking advantage of the NYC arts scene.

Ivan Van Hoe’s Opening Night was presented as a part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual Next Wave Festival. This was a dramatic adaptation of a 1977 film of the same name. The film, apparently, was about a drama which might be derailed if the lead actress cannot pull herself together before the big premiere. I saw it Friday, December 5 with mom.

This adaption of the film (about a play) tackled the same subject matter, but (in what I can only interpret as an ambitious structural move) brought a filmic element to the live adaptation through a “documentary team” there to capture the entire behind the scenes antics on film.

The result is a stage play that unveils the story on the stage with more than one frame of reference. The audience is invited to watch the show on the stage, as well as view the action via screens around the theater broadcasting the documentary footage live.

If it seems a little confusing here, that’s more my fault. It’s very clear what’s happening when you come to the show. The lead actress doesn’t want to do this part (she thinks it makes her seem irreversibly old), and the rest of the acting troupe, the director, and the frazzled writer are at their wits end. The documentary team plays a silent witness, and for good measure, the leading actress is haunted by a spirit who is either/both her lost youth or/and a young fan who dies in an accident outside the theater.

I’ll leave the heavy criticism to the New York Times. It was existential and stuff. Suffice it for me to say, I was engaged. This show was in Dutch with subtitles, and performed very well.

This work is self-reflexive, and is gesturing towards a different relationship with its audience. The actors break the walls, and come out to sit with us in the theater (which happens often enough these days.) They also have a few rows of audience on the stage, helping to ground the "play within a play" element.

That being said, in the final analysis, I do have to wonder what was intended with all this play-within-a play-within-a-documentary stuff. I mean, it was a cute way to add multimedia to a piece that seemed to have enough going on already. My problem is, I don’t think this jerry-rigged structure did all that much for me.

Now there are two caveats to this claim.

1. I don’t speak Dutch, so while a native speaker would enjoy the option of devoting their full attention to the stage at times, I had to keep my eye on those screens and the subtitles.

2. I sat it in the nosebleed seats. And from up there, you couldn’t see the entire stage, and some of the more ambitious film work was obscured by the ceiling.

So that’s that. There’s more to be said, but it gets heavily into formal analysis, which leads into a lot of other stuff I want to get into. I should just note that expanding the toolkit to include staged drama and film is fraught with pitfalls. And I’m not sure what the advantages are besides being “different.”