African American spirituals are ingrained in our present day culture – sung in churches, taught in school music curriculums, lauded for their tragically powerful history and acknowledged for their subsequent influence on almost all modern genres of music, from blues to jazz to rock to R&B to hip-hop to modern gospel.
Overall, I highly recommend “Jubilee” as a deeply meaningful and musically inspiring historical play…
It may be hard for our modern minds to grasp that at one point in our nation’s sullied past, spirituals (then called “hand me downs” or “jubilees”) were not known by the general public – and how could they be? The general public, as the country saw it, consisted of “free” people only, who were predominantly white. These songs originated from the other half of our nation’s people, the African Americans who wrote these songs for courage, comfort, and self-expression born out of their deep faith in God in the midst of the pain of their enslavement and abuse.
“Jubilee,” now playing at Arena Stage, tells the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who created their choir shortly after the Civil War and toured the country and then the world raising funds to keep the newly formed but underfunded Fisk University open so that higher education would be available to African American students.
Writer and Director Tazewell Thompson, in a joint effort with Vocal Arranger and Musical Director Dianne Adams McDowell, does a phenomenal job of not only sharing the history of the university and the choir while keeping the audience entertained and engaged (not always easy in a biopic) but also immersing the audience in about three dozen spirituals, fully performed and beautifully arranged in the historical style of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
The play stays fresh and engaging thanks to the lively group narration of historical tidbits as each actor trades words and phrases around the stage. The narration and songs are ably intermingled with hysterical interludes by actor Lisa Arrindell who slips into the role of several prominent historical figures, from a white Southern belle to the Fisk choir director to Queen Victoria.
As someone who is very familiar with not only modern gospel but also modern gospel choir arrangements of traditional spirituals, I was somewhat surprised by the style of the musical performances as they were quite different from what I am accustomed to (having sung with the Maryland Gospel Choir throughout my college years). They are faithful to the style of the Fisk Jubilee Singers so the music provides a living documentation of the history of the group and highlights how musical styles, even in traditional music, have evolved over the last two hundred years as new directors and interpreters add their own flair. The modern-day Fisk Jubilee Singers remain faithful to the original style of the group, which struck me during the play as fairly classical in its interpretation of the songs – perhaps not so surprising given that the group’s original director was a white musician undoubtedly trained in the white European styles.
One thing that did confuse me during the play was that multiple references were made to the fact that the Fisk Jubilee choir director was white – but, that oddity was left unexplained. When actor Arrindell gives her impression of the director, I laughed delightedly at her uncanny characterization of a zealous choir director – but I have sung under directors both black and white, gospel and classical, who were equally as obsessively passionate. It’s how musicians are. So I was left confused as to what feelings playwright Thompson was guiding me towards in regard to the choir director and didn’t feel that enough information was given to understand either how the director came to be employed or how the choir truly felt about him, which is a shame given how much emphasis was given to the director’s race and role.
Both the costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh and the lighting by Robert Wierzel were spectacular and added greatly to the ambiance of the play. The diverse lighting made the simple set magical and drew us into the world before us, whether it was sunlight shining on the choir’s faces as they sang about the rising sun, or a sudden flash of lightning followed by darkness, or the gentle suggestion of the ocean. I happen to love historical costumes, and the Civil War era suits and gowns were absolutely divine. I loved how a grey and black palette was used with a variety of prints, which gave a unique flair to each character but easily blended them together into an ensemble. The greytones also reminded me that we were watching living history, as only black and white photographs exist of the original members.
Overall, I highly recommend “Jubilee” as a deeply meaningful and musically inspiring historical play that may challenge viewers by providing a lens into our nation’s troubled history but may also inspire viewers to a greater dedication to social justice, personal courage, and passion for the arts as the means of our individual and collective inspiration.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
“Jubilee,” written and directed by Tazewell Thompson with musical arrangements and direction by Dianne Adams McDowell plays through June 9, 2019, at Arena Stage. For more information, click here.