This wonderful walk through history shows us there is hope, always, for a brighter day.
Photo: Phillip Hamer
The Sunday of Memorial Day weekend was the perfect time to join the ensemble at The Black Rep for Crossin’ Over, but I’m not sure there could ever be a wrong time to see this remarkable show. I laughed, I cried, I danced in my seat, and if I weren’t so damn white, I’d have waved my hands, stomped my feet and fully participated in the call and response. I felt like Jake at the church in The Blues Brothers who got woke by the preacher (James Brown) and cartwheeled down the aisle in a blaze of sunshine. I was that moved, and this show is a visceral experience you won’t soon forget.
Conceived and directed by Ron Himes in 2005, the show returns this year with some of the original cast reprising their roles (Jerome Davis, Kelvin Roston, Jr., Leah Stewart, and Herman Gordon) to close the company’s 40th season. Michael Lowe, Amber Rose, Maureen L. Williams, and Venezia Manuel round out the group. Now, as then, Charles Creath acts as music director, and keyboardist, and the music is transporting. Himes writes in his director’s note that he compiled the sung-through show to commemorate his mother, and it was the final show she saw at her son’s company. Opening night of this presentation marked the anniversary of her own “crossin’ over,” and I can’t imagine a better tribute to a mom from a devoted and wildly creative child.
The Emerson Performance at Harris-Stowe Center at Harris-Stowe State University in Midtown isn’t large, but the singers and musicians are mic-ed. Normally I might object to that, but not here because the sheer volume and power of the instruments (keyboards, bass and various drums) and voices create a roof-raising, immersive experience that grabs the audience, gives it a good shake, and does not let go until the last note of “Clap Your Hands” comes 2 ½ hours later, and the time passes like just a moment.
The piece, more like an opera than a musical really, though its subtitle is “A Musical with a Measure of Silent Rebellion,” tells the story of the African-American experience from its roots in African villages from where people were stolen and enslaved for profit to the present day. Beginning with a chilling drum call that matches the rhythm of the heart as it speeds up in excitement, the ensemble in hooded robes echoes the instrument from the house aisles and culminates in the infectious “We Are the Drum” before they take the stage. A series of five “suites” ensue, depicting life in Africa, captivity (slave ships, the auction block, and the cotton fields, the secular and religious music of the great Thomas Dorsey, the civil rights movement, and finally, contemporary life for the black Americans depicting the full range of human experience.
The African Suite depicts lavishly costumed villagers (Daryl Harris gets the credit for these and the rest of the outfits the cast wears throughout, all outstanding) going about daily life until the unthinkable happens, and the Captivity Suite takes us through the indescribable horror of the institution of slavery. We “see” a man lashed, a woman raped, and these are real to us, even though they are only suggested by the actors’ movements. “No More Auction Block for Me” represents the transition to freedom, or the appearance thereof anyway, and the Christian faith that has always been the backbone of black life in America continues to be expressed through song. No other belief system is mentioned, but during the 19th century, slaves were taught about Jesus, so that’s where the focus stays. It is a logical spiritual center for the story.
After intermission, the Thomas Dorsey Suite starts with a Blues medley but also contains a lovely rendition of “Precious Lord” and several other of Dorsey’s well-known hymns. Each individual performer has a unique sound, but Creath has managed to meld them beautifully. The Civil Right Suite is, to me, the most powerful of the individual segments, as the group kicks off with “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” works its way through a representative group of spirituals, then shifts to the purpose of this part with an energetic rendition of “If You Miss Me on the Back of the Bus.” The show stopper here is “Strange Fruit,” which the singers perform with eerie reverence. There can be no doubt as to why the people were so devoted to achieving a society in which all people really are created equal. Clad in bright red choir robes, the cast finishes with the Contemporary Suite, beginning with “Oh Happy Day” and culminating in “Clap Your Hands,” and we do. We surely do.
Jim Burwinkel’s set and the late Mark Wilson’s lighting design create a simple yet versatile stage with banners dropped throughout to represent the various eras being depicted. The lights coupled with Reggie Davis’s sound are more noticeable and significant in this show than these elements often are, directing us to imagine not only the horrors of captivity, but also hearing sirens, gun shots, tear gas, police dogs, and more, seeing flashing lights; all of the effects directed toward letting us know this battle is far from over. All these stories are further illuminated by the actors’ pantomime of the action in each segment, so we experience this journey with them.
This group also dances in various styles to suit the moods of the music, which is stellar throughout. Movement was choreographed by Mama Lisa Gage and Venezia Manuel, the lead dancer in the show, who is found on a platform center stage for the first and last parts of the show, mirroring and interpreting that which takes place below her. She is a kind of griot, traditionally African at first, then in the end, using a contemporary Martha Graham-flavored style. The same platform adds another visual element as a versatile playing space for all the performers. I wouldn’t even try to choose the “best” singer/dancer because they are all terrific.
Himes also notes that “crossin’ over” conveys several meanings—the big crossing when the forced migration occurred; the crossover of music genres and purposes from the sacred to the streets; from the radio and to the stage; and, of course, the passage from life to death. He quotes W.E.B. DuBois: “Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes faith in death sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. . . . [But] sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.” We’re not there yet, but this wonderful walk through history shows us there is hope, always, for a brighter day. | Andrea Braun
Crossin’ Over is by The Black Rep performing in the Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University through June 18, 2017. For more information, you may visit www.theblackrep.org or call 314-534-3807.