Steeped in history and echoing with divine harmony, Jubilee is an event you won’t want to miss.
A cast of thirteen singing actors – each a strong performer in their own right – work seamlessly to create the tight harmonies and soulful singing of the historic Fisk Jubilee Singers, famed in their day for touring the country to spread not only phenomenal music but to raise money for their artistic and academic home, Fisk University in Nashville.
Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, Jubilee gives glimpses of the individuals who comprised the Fisk singers at the time of their first tour, 1871, but it is the music that lifts the story and the spirits from the opening notes until the last chords fade from memory. The music in question was then known as secret songs or field songs; these were the songs sung by slaves as they worked. We have come to know this music as the Negro Spiritual in modern times. The Fisk University students were the first to take these songs, also known as jubilees, from the fields to the general public. Even more remarkable, the songs in Jubilee are performed by the talented cast a capella – 100 percent without accompaniment. The Kreeger theater has never sounded more glorious and angelic.
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The play unfolds as little snapshots of the Fisk Singers, from their foundation to the end of their lives. Along the way, we see how tenacious and dignified these young men and women were, proud of their heritage, hellbent on getting an education, and sharing their magnificent harmonies with the world – even if it meant poor treatment from mostly white audiences, especially in the Jim Crow south. One of the most powerfully staged scenes depicts the singers being surrounded by a mob and, after a pregnant pause that hangs in the air, each one of the Fisk performers is beaten and humiliated. Director Thompson presents it in a stylized manner that is riveting, including a sonorous soundscape by sound designer Fabian Obispo.
Other members of the group share stories of witnessing their parents being brutally whipped, or having to learn spelling and other subjects while hiding under the floorboards of a schoolhouse. Remember, Fisk University was founded on the heels of the Civil War, during the time of Reconstruction – members were the children of slaves and several members were former slaves. Even as they fought poor treatment, and a lack of proper facilities at their poorly funded university, the Fisk Singers stood tall to sing for their supper and, indeed, for their survival.
Thompson’s script blends these stories with the careful selection of “hand-me-down songs’ that serves as a rich palette from which to paint the historic and poignant picture of this group. Among the songs in Jubilee, starting with “Over My Head, I Hear Music in the Air” and“There’s A Meeting Here Tonight” a mixture of 18 other spirituals are performed. If you have grown up in certain churches, an old favorite is bound to ring in your ears.
For their command performance before Queen Victoria, the singers share “Steal Away Home.” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” shows how the group rehearsing a song, getting the diction and harmonies just right. “Deep River,” one of the most famous of these songs is sung with purity and pathos by understudy Brittani McNeill as Mabel Lewis. Note: The role of Mabel is usually played by Shaleah Adkisson, who was out of the show last Saturday.
Dianne Adams McDowell is to be commended for her work as music director and the vocal arrangements. The actor-singers sound is rich, full, with clear diction and delicate harmonies that allow the beauty of these classic songs to shine from start to finish.
Jubilee at Arena Stage closes June 9, 2019. Details and tickets
The cast, as mentioned before, is made up of a strong cast of performers. Aundi Marie Moore makes a strong impression as Maggie Porter, a soprano who thinks of herself as a prima donna, the self-described “show pony” who should be featured more during the Jubilee Singers’ performances. Moore possesses a crystal clear voice and displayed the diva-like attitude suited to the character, often at odds with the other students. Another standout performer among the fine cast was Lisa Arrindell as Ella Shepherd, one of the members who also takes on a variety of other roles which she brings to life with comic precision and distinctive voices. Arrindell easily switches from a hoity-toity white society maven, to George White – Fisk’s exacting chorus master (also white) – and ends up as the formidable Queen Victoria on the group’s world tour.
Thompson’s design collaborators enhance the performances with exacting detail, starting with the eye-catching period costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh. Donald Eastman’s setting places the story in a world a faded dignity, a large hall in which the walls are fading and cracking – fitting for the university that was founded on the grounds of a repurposed institution that was crumbling even in 1871. Throughout the play, stylized projections by Shawn Duan punctuate the scene, just as the lighting design by Robert Wierzel plays with shadows and light, making the most of the large Kreeger space.
The music in Jubilee is poised to grab your heart and not let go. I feel as though I need to issue a tissue alert for the ending: if some of the arrangements and vocals don’t make you well up with tears, the fate of some of the singers may.
Jubilee . Written and Directed by Tazewell Thompson . Vocal Arrangements and Music Direction by Dianne Adams McDowell . Featuring: Shaleah Adkisson, Lisa Arrindell, Joy Jones, Zonya Love, Sean-Maurice Lynch, V. Savoy McIlwain, Aundi Marie Moore, Simone Paulwell, Travis Pratt, Katherine Alexis Thomas, Bueka Uwemedimo, Greg Watkins, Jaysen Wright, Brittani McNeill, Mary Millben, Ben Toomer, and Chris White . Set Design: Donald Eastman . Costume Design: Merrily Murray-Walsh . Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel . Sound Design: Fabian Obispo . Projection Design: Shawn Duan . Wig Designer: Anne Nesmith . Assistant Music Director: N. Thomas Pederson . Fight Director: Ron Piretti . Dramaturg: Jocelyn Clark . Stage Manager: Kurt Hall . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.