Jubilee: a truly educational experienceReview
Jubilee: An Inspirational A Cappella Tribute is in its debut production at Arena Stage at the Mead Center in Washington D.C. Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, the work follows the journey of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, an a cappella group that raised funds for the first accredited African American College.
The thirteen-member cast had many classically trained singers, and it showed. In the beginning, the cast came out doing vocalises and warm ups, before immediately launching into a full bodied rendition of “Ain’t that good news”. After the group narration in the exposition, very talented actress Ms. Lisa Arrindell assumed the character of Mr. White (“our WHITE choir director” as the cast repeated whenever his name was mentioned). Then a cringe-worthy (and much too real for many musicians) rehearsal ensued. Mr. White brow beat the choir for being off, not in tune, not “feeling” the music to his satisfaction.
All through this rehearsal of a spiritual regarding Daniel, the character Maggie Porter (played by the vocal stand out of the cast Aundi Marie Moore) stopped singing and looked stony faced into the audience. After a confrontation, Maggie gave the first personal soliloquy of the play, and sang an excerpt of “Pace, pace O mio dio” from Verdi’s La forza del destino. A choice with double meaning given the text of the aria (“Peace, peace… a cruel misfortune…my suffering has lasted for so many years, deep as on the first day”) highlights the long struggle of black people in America, and the name of the opera “the force of destiny” highlighting Maggie’s strong belief that she was born to sing solo for the world.
Her gorgeous full soprano was coming through in the spirituals, but this aria is when the audience really got to fully experience her instrument. The jubilee singers, though a few years ago emancipated, were once again under the control of a white man. After this scene he was not mentioned again, I was curious as to what happened to him. Did the group continue on without him, or did they just put up with his control issues? The narrative went on to the court of Queen Victoria in England (also played by Ms. Lisa Arrindell), where her majesty had many requested songs. The voyage back to America was a very moving scene with “Wade in the Water” as the main musical theme. Then the cast picked up sharing biographical details and intimate thoughts that expanded the fabric of the narrative.
Jubilee gave the audience a look into the suffering of slavery, and the continued hard ships of freed persons. Though of course the main focus of the work was the horrific slavery that thrived in the United States for hundreds of years, this work also gave an effective look into the artistic and ensemble struggles of a group of humans attempting to find their voice. Some other spirituals that were incorporated were: “Swing low sweet chariot”, “Dem bones”, and “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen”.
This mix of breaking down the fourth wall, group narratives and of course, lots of singing provided for a wonderful and unique theater experience. I have had little to no experience with the Negro Spiritual genre, and Jubilee was a truly educational experience. All the characters were based on real people, and the epilogue had a slide show of pictures of the men and women, with the actors stepping forward and saying what happened to them after their fundraising for Fisk. Appropriately, the company went out singing “Remember me”.