Twenty years ago, Playwright and Director Tazewell Thompson viewed a documentary on the famed Fisk University Jubilee Singers who toured the U.S. and Central Europe in the 1800s to save their beloved school from financial ruin.
After viewing the documentary, Thompson was obsessed with the choir’s story and wanted to know more. When he was offered a commission to write a play, he knew that he wanted to tell the story of the Jubilee Singers who not only saved their school, but also introduced Negro Spirituals around the world.
Onstage at Arena Stage though June 9, the play features more than 36 songs sung by a vocally phenomenal cast of 13 who beautifully tell the story of these African-American students who raised $150,000 for the school (the equivalent of $3 million today).
In the process, they shared their African-American musical heritage with diverse audiences, performing publicly the secret music that had been sung by slaves in fields and behind closed doors for generations. Touring initially in the northeast U.S., and later in central Europe, their audiences included U.S President Ulysses Grant and England’s Queen Victoria. Despite acquiring wealthy white patrons that included white nobles in England, they would also face racism and discrimination. At one point, they survived the action of an ugly, racist white mob.
The play kicks off in the time period right after the Civil War, when Fisk University was started in 1865 by the American Missionary Association in Nashville, Tennessee for the education of freed slaves. In 1871, George W. White, the school’s treasurer and professor of music, started a nine member acappella ensemble to go on a musical tour and raise funds for the poorly financed college.
All but two members of the ensemble were former slaves and many still were in their teens. Those students were: Issac Dickerson, Maggie Porter, Minnie Tate, Jennie Jackson, Benjamin Holmes, Thomas Rutling, Greene Evans and Ella Sheppard. The number would later grow.
The play opens up with the solemn “Over My Head” and the upbeat “There’s a Meeting in the House,” where 13 students are warming up for a rehearsal in the decaying Union Army hospital barracks that housed classrooms and living quarters. The leaking roofs and inadequate facilities posed a health problem for the then current and expanding student population, primarily why trustees, in what would be a monumental decision, had agreed to allow the ensemble to tour.
In the play, 13 students are played by 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 and Jaysen Wright.
The strength of the play is in the minimal narration, with the main emphasis on the singer’s voices. The first act is devoted to establishing the roots of the music, and a scene where the students, while preparing a garden, unearth manacles and spiked neck collars on the school’s property that reveal the site of a former slave yard, sets up some of the play’s most emotional moments.
The brutal instruments of enslavement are projected on a back wall while singers perform “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child.” With vocal arrangements and music direction by Dianne Adams McDowell, each player roughly gets equal time. Singing songs that belied the minstrel performances of the day, the singers perform with dignity, reverence and grace.
Arrindell, as Ella Sheppard, steals the show with her portrayal of the ensemble’s white choral director, Queen Victoria and a southern woman hosting a tea where the singers perform. Seamlessly transforming from one character to another, Arrindell easily goes from a British to a southern accent to that of a taskmaster, speaking volumes about assumptions and biases.
Actress and singer Aundi Marie Moore is superb as Maggie Porter, the soprano who wants to sing solos and not blend in with the group. Paulwell, Pratt and Love also standout in solos that portray the challenges the students faced. Along the way, the audience is treated to such classic songs as “Wade in the Water,” “Heaven,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Great Day.”
The play ends with giving small glimpses into what became of the singers after leaving Fisk and the impact that they made around the world. Their rich voices left a rich heritage forged by pain, strength and endurance that kept alive the spiritual songs of a people.
In addition to an outstanding musical repertoire, a talented production team that includes costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, sound designer Fabian Obispo and projection designer Shawn Duan also adds to this impressive show.