It’s Monday evening. I find myself again on the deck of the Wavertree tall sailing ship at South Street Seaport. (I wrote an article about the ship in June.) There is, thank you, a slight breeze. Tonight’s audience sits I n well-spaced, wood folding chairs beneath the open sky and a web of rigging.
What Lies Beneath is a site-specific performance of five arias, several with potent spoken word, immersing audience in the maritime connection to America’s unconscionable slave trade, and one aria of Captain Ahab’s final moments of reckoning (Melville’s – Moby Dick) representing moral comeuppance. Though the Wavertree was a cargo ship, its atmosphere is much like those vessels that kidnapped Africans who were then sold into slavery. From vignette to vignette, those attending are moved (after a bosun’s whistle) to a new location on deck by quiet, efficient ushers. Geography is well employed to feature vocalists on several levels. Dramatization is entirely fluid.
The evening starts with Rasaan Talu Green’s splendid African Djembe (drum). Backs straighten. People snap to alertness in anticipation. One level above us, seemingly a balcony, Bernard Holcomb sings the Trickster’s Aria from the opera Amistead (Music Anthony Davis/Libretto Thulani Davis): I know you think me just a small god/A god unarmed and weak/With only wit and brain,/words and guile/But it only seems/I am aboard a ship I cannot sail…Holcomb is expressive, his laugh darkly mischievous. The air around us shifts.
Bernard Holcomb and Tesia Kwarteng
Next is Sea Fever (Music -John Ireland/Text – John Masefield; world premiere arrangement by James Davis Jr.): I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,/And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…Elliott Paige’s warm, full baritone is joined by Nicholas Davis’ gruff bass as the two men aptly knot ends of a thick red rope. This song is appealingly melodic. The performers imbue it with devotion.
Matthew Ancel then manifests John Claggart from Billy Budd ( Claggart’s Aria: Oh Beauty, O handsomeness, goodness – Music -Benjamin Brittan; Libretto – E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier.) Having loomed over the sailors in Sea Fever, longing for and anger about what he cannot have is evident: Would that I’d never seen you!/Having seen you, what choice remains to me?/None! None! I am doomed to annihilate you…I don’t believe this artist. All the gestures are right, but there’s nothing personal about his performance.
At the other end of the spectrum, Zachary James’ Captain Ahab is riveting. The powerful vocalist is an equally talented actor, physical in his Shakespearean agony: Destroyer!/I know you’re here!/I can taste your bitter blood in the brine/ Come and face me!/Come and conquer me if you can!… James batters himself against the deck and stairs. A gut punch. (A monodrama – Music – Juliana Hall/Libretto – Caitlin Vincent, Staged Premiere)
To my mind, the highpoint of the evening is 1619: A Song Cycle (Music and Text by Damien Geter, East Coast Premiere): The first documented Africans in the New World arrived in Virginia in Aug.1619 on the White Lion, an English privateer based in the Netherlands…My grandmother said they used pretty red handkerchiefs and jewels to lure the people from her village to the shore… The entire company lines up on either side of the rigging singing and speaking history both as a communal experience and as individual slaves.
…Herded them like cattle and put in stalls/Brought them on the ship and put in stalls…Oh, how we danced…That’s how they enticed us onto the ship – dancing with, and for, the white men…One day a big ship stopped off of the shore. The ship men scattered bright things and trinkets on the beach. Grandmother said everybody made a rush for them things…
Two props are used to startling advantage: torn pieces of red cloth signify enticement and, perhaps, blood; mirror fragments held up to us represent trinkets and a demand for recognition of culpability. The company turns, steps, gestures in ghostly, balletic unison, or stills in recollection. Voices hum, rise and fall, overlap, moan and cry out – participants and witnesses. Women add another poignant dimension. Text takes us through the Thirteenth Amendment. A stunning piece.
The evening ends with They Are All Gone Now – Maurya’s Lament from the opera Riders to the Sea (Music -Ralph Vaughan Williams -Text, based on the play of the same name by John Millington Synge). Tesia Kwarteng is proud, sorrowful Maurya: They are all gone now/And there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…They are all together this time, and the end is come…The company responds. Mirrors are again held up. Talu Green’s Djembe circles the deck like a coda. Silence.
The production is imaginative, beautifully mounted, and stirring.
Costume Designer Azelea Fairley has done a wonderful job mixing contemporary apparel with ethnic pieces evocative of the past.
Additional Company Members: Lindell Carter, Edwin Jhamal Davis, Chantal Freeman, Carami Hilaire, Karmesha K. Peake
Photos by Bowie Dunwoody
What Lies Beneath
Conductor- James Davis Jr.
Co-Director/Cultural Advocate- Winston A. Benons Jr.
Co-Director, General & Artistic Director of On Site Opera- Eric Einhorn
On Site Opera