In a new family musical, director Colman Domingo doesn't sugarcoat slavery or racism
Although A Band of Angels
is based on Deborah Hopkinson's picture book of the same name
and mounted by the New York City Children's Theatre
, the musical is far from child's play. A tribute to the historic Fisk Jubilee Singers
-- a choir founded shortly after the Civil War at one of the first schools for emancipated African-Americans -- the show doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of slavery and its aftermath, even though the production is intended for family audiences.
"When we started, I said, 'Let's let go of the conceit that this is quote-unquote children's theatre," explains director Colman Domingo
, who's best known for his work as a performer, especially his Tony-nominated turn in another racially-charged, history-inspired musical, The Scottsboro Boys
. "I actually began my career directing theatre for young audiences in the San Francisco Bay Area. Children want the truth. You can go to a dark place with them. If there's a whip onstage, you can crack it. Be as honest as possible and they'll respect you for it."
Written by late playwright Myla Churchill, A Band of Angels
originally debuted at New York City Children's Theatre (then called Making Books Sing) in 2005. For the revival, the company's founder, Barbara Zinn Krieger, was looking for a director who connected with the material and could also update the script to make it more contemporary. Although Domingo suspects Krieger hadn't actually seen any of his directing work and only knew him as a performer and playwright, she approached him about the project. He jumped immediately. "I felt like it was a great match for me because of the themes I'm interested in," he says. "When it comes to history and legacy, how do we tell our stories? So many people haven't heard of the Jubilee Singers, these freed slaves singing these amazing spirituals and how they went on tour to raise money to save the Fisk school
. I love sharing this story."
The fictional Ella -- a modern-day, disaffected 15-year-old from the Bronx who's obsessed with technology and Beyoncé -- serves as our window into history. With her aunt's help, she's magically transported back in time into the shoes of her great-great-grandmother, inspired by real-life choir member Ella Sheppard. All of the songs, including "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "This Little Light of Mine," are performed a cappella by the six-person cast, most of whom play multiple roles.
While much of the 70-minute show is uplifting, celebrating the power of music and education, there are also harrowing sequences, notably the burning of a black school by Ku Klux Klan night riders.
Instead of trying to simulate a fire, Domingo has the performers make offstage sound effects of a blaze; the only visual is the teacher's distraught reaction to such intense violence, destruction, and hatred.
"Originally, that scene was all lighting and movement, but we realized it needed something more, a sound," Domingo says. "I wondered what we could do vocally and with our bodies. We started crinkling paper, and I was eating some potato chips, so I started crinkling the bag. Then we put that all together. That's how we make that crackle."
It's a haunting noise that is just as potent as the glorious songs. "The cast creates all the sounds in the show -- it's theatrical simplicity," adds Domingo. "So many kids today like Ella are fixated with the screens in front of their faces and can't see beyond that. The show goes from the highly technological to the archaic, and there's a gentle beauty in that. We have to journey into the past in order for us to move forward."
In light of the volatile state of race relations in this country, Domingo believes it's more important than ever for all of us to examine our collective history, especially children. "Once you're eight years old, you start understanding and you want to know more," he says. "These are conversations we need to have, even when they're uncomfortable. We haven't educated ourselves about the painful history of our country, and that's why we're having so many racial problems now. I have faith and hope that today's kids are going to be much more together than we are."
Raven Snook is the associate editor of TDF Stages
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Tickets to A Band of Angels
are available through TDF's Off-Off@$9 Program