In Review > North America

We Shall Not Be Moved

PHILADELPHIA
Opera Philadelphia
9/16/17

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Spoken word artist Lauren Whitehead as Un/Sung in Bill T. Jones's production of We Shall Not Be Moved, Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph's world premiere for Opera Philadelphia
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier
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Whitehead and bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock as John Henry
Photo by Dominic M. Mercier
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Countertenor John Holiday as transgender boy John Blue
Photo by Dave DiRentis  

ON SEPTEMBER 16, We Shall Not Be Moved, a trenchant, keenly judged collaboration between composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and poet/spoken word artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph played to an appreciative audience at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater, marking the second of three scheduled world premieres at Opera Philadelphia’s O17 Festival. We Shall Not Be Moved points up Philadelphia's (and society's) persistent structural injustices to communities of color: the threat of rape, vulnerability to both police and peer violence and the marginalization of gender fluidity all fuel the plot of the new work. Philadelphia's 1985 MOVE bombing and resultant fire—still a painfully divisive topic—provides a ghostly background to this story of contemporary youths seeking refuge in an abandoned structure from school, families and their own misdeeds.  

This ambitious project, which has artistic roots in OP's community-based school workshops, was fortunate to have Bill T. Jones on hand as director, choreographer and dramaturg, staging the action on Matt Saunders’s flexible sets, superbly lit by Robert Wierzel. Viswa Subbaraman, a strong conductor specializing in contemporary music, led a taut performance (essentially played backstage) of a compelling score utilizing classical, jazz, music theater, hip-hop and dance music vocabulary. What sometime seemed repetitious in advance readings of Joseph's libretto took powerful wing under Roumain's rhythmic, expressive word setting.

The entire ensemble showed commitment and talent, but the work pivoted on two contrasted female characters—the elective family's brave young ringleader, Un/Sung, played by impassioned spoken word artist Lauren Whitehead, and Glenda Ramos, a self-styled "ghetto flower"–turned–police officer, sung by vibrant mezzo Kirstin Chávez. Both artists were electric presences, and their scenes of conflict and dialogue structured the piece's trajectory. Un/Sung's inventive sorties were usually not surtitled, but thanks to Whitehead's focus and verbal clarity surtitles weren't needed. Un/Sung actually sang at some junctures, and Whitehead soared impressively. Chávez sounded lovely and soulful in tensile lines often delivered a cappella. 

Un/Sung's four adoptive teen brothers are all named John. An attack on John Blue, a transboi, sets the plot in motion. With his unusually well integrated registers and gorgeous tone, countertenor John Holiday has caused major splashes in the Baroque repertory; his work here was luminous, moving and spectacular. If any classical or music theater composer has contemplated a theater piece centered around the fantastic disco divo Sylvester, its star is at hand. Daniel Shirley's plaintive, well-controlled tenor illuminated the inner struggle of John Little, a white or mixed-race kid who self-identifies as black. Adam Richardson fielded a gorgeously textured bass as the devout John Mack. As the dynamic, sensitive/macho John Henry, fast-rising bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock showcased great player attitude, but in the first act the amplification of his voice made his diction sound opaque. Some coups de théâtre place John Henry's survival in doubt at Act I’s close, through the intermission and onwards. Act II began with a ravishing, seemingly out-of-body monologue owing something to Britten's "Billy in the Darbies" but also to the expressive vocabulary of spirituals. Here and thereafter—in a (potential) death scene nearly as long as Tristan's—Allicock fielded Joseph's affecting words with great precision.

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Mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez as West Philly cop Glenda with Lauren Whitehead
Photo by Dave DiRentis
 

Jones's insightful work with the actors shaped a tight, intelligent narrative. The staging was only occasionally over-literal, as when Officer Ramos raised the specter of "red and blue lights" invading the elective family's refuge and we saw an approximated police car light. The spectral "OGs"—lingering victims of the abandoned house's previous state-administered violence who are tutelary spirits to the displaced youth—manifested themselves in Jorge Cousineau's deft projections and also as lithe, energetic dancers singing in pop voices; Tendayi Kuumba and Caci Cole Pritchett sang more incisively than their male colleagues, Michael Bishop and Duane Lee Holland. As often happens when even the most gifted choreographers direct, Jones overused his dancers during some finely crafted ensemble numbers. They drew focus both from the principals' nuanced interaction and from Roumain's music.

Although We Shall Not Be Moved has particular resonance after a summer marked by heightened rhetorical tension between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Philadelphia Police—as well as the Trump Administration's treatment of the trans community—Roumain and Joseph's opera succeeds on the level of art and not just polemic. One wishes that the piece would have more local performances than its six slated shows at the Wilma Theater, but the production is bound for a run in Manhattan.  —David Shengold



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