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Jubilee ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
May 21, 2019 

Jubilee harkens back to the American Reconstruction era when White audiences were beginning to listen to Negro spirituals in concert settings.  Songs sung on plantations, in Black churches and on chain gangs – spiritual songs, work songs, songs of the underground railroad and traditional folk tunes – became more widely heard.  These were not minstrel shows.  They were African American choirs who sang the songs that told of escape, redemption, struggle, and faith, and that later became the foundation for American Jazz, R&B and Blues.

(L to R) Simone Paulwell (America Robinson), V. Savoy McIlwain (Thomas Rutling), Sean-Maurice Lynch (Frederick Loudin), Jaysen Wright (Edmund Watkins), Lisa Arrindell (Ella Sheppard) and Greg Watkins (Benjamin Holmes) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In the hands of veteran director and playwright, Tazewell Thompson, that period comes alive with the musical strains of a thirteen-person a capella choir, like the one that had its origins at a historically Black college.  The story of Fisk University (HBCU), founded in Nashville, Tennessee for the education of freemen and women after the Civil War, could be the story of many Black universities that have struggled financially, except in its early years Fisk formed a student choir with the sole purpose of raising funds to keep the school from financial disaster.  Led by a stern choir director, the group of young former farmworkers was able to achieve international recognition with their widely sought-after performances.

(L to R) Lisa Arrindell (Ella Sheppard), Jaysen Wright (Edmund Watkins), Katherine Alexis Thomas (Minnie Tate), Zonya Love (Georgia Gordon), Greg Watkins (Benjamin Holmes) and Shaleah Adkisson (Mabel Lewis) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Soaring operatic solos by Lisa Arrindell in multiple roles including Ella Sheppard, one of the students, coloratura soprano, Zonya Love as Georgia Gordon, and Aundi Marie Moore as diva Maggie Porter will give you goosebumps.  Evoking visions of the 19th-century rural revival camp meetings of The First Great Awakening, male baritones, tenors and basses seem to blend effortlessly on popular spirituals like “Dem Bones (Gonna Rise Again)”.   Costume Designer Merrily Murray-Walsh dresses the singers in beautiful Victorian-era fashions – the ladies in elegant wide-skirted silk dresses, the gentlemen in frock coats and cutaways – all in shades of black and grey.

(L to R) Shaleah Adkisson (Mabel Lewis), Joy Jones (Jennie Jackson), Katherine Alexis Thomas (Minnie Tate), Lisa Arrindell (Ella Sheppard), Bueka Uwemedimo (Greene Evans), Travis Pratt (Isaac Dickerson) and Aundi Marie Moore (Maggie Porter) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jubilee is a beautiful story of perseverance and self-determination – of surviving racism, both internal and external, violence, and poverty – told in exquisite harmonies.  Soul-stirring, traditional songs – “Wade in the Water” (sung in Gregorian unison), “Thou Art Great”, “Go Down Moses”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, and “There Is A Balm in Gilead”lend meaning and gravitas to this stellar production that weaves thirty-six mellifluous songs into this inspiring musical.

(L to R) V. Savoy McIlwain (Thomas Rutling), Sean-Maurice Lynch (Frederick Loudin), Simone Paulwell (America Robinson), Aundi Marie Moore (Maggie Porter) and Joy Jones (Jennie Jackson) in Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Gorgeously sung and deeply inspirational.

Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson with Vocal Direction and Music Direction by Dianna Adams McDowell, Set Design by Donald Eastman, Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel and Sound Design by Fabian Obispo.

The cast of Jubilee running April 26 through June 2, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

With Shaleah Adkisson as Mabel Lewis, Joy Jones as Jennie Jackson, Sean-Maurice Lynch as Frederick Loudin, V. Savoy McIlwain as Thomas Rutling, Aundi Marie Moore as Maggie Porter, Simone Paulwell as America Robinson, Travis Pratt as Isaac Dickerson, Katherine Alexis Thomas as Minnie Tate, Bueka Uwemedimo as Greene Evans/Fight Captain, Greg Watkins as Benjamin Holmes and Jaysen Wright as Edmund Watkins.

Through June 9th at Arena Stage 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

For further study of Fisk University and its distinguished alumni who include Congressman John Lewis, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, NAACP co-founder W.E. B. Du Bois, Poet Nikki Giovanni, Educator and Presidential advisor Booker T. Washington, and Civil Rights activist Ida B. Wells, visit www.Fisk.edu

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