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Sing Like America (With Gertrude Stein)

Date: Jun 19, 2014


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Gertrude Stein's groundbreaking opera gets mixed with hip-hop, country, and jazz


On a warm June day I'm hurrying to watch a rehearsal of Gertrude Stein SAINTS!. Playing at Abrons Arts Center through June 28, the project pairs Stein's libretto for Four Saints in Three Acts with ensemble-created American music, and I'm anxious to observe the company as they work.

As I hustle along, running behind schedule, I notice a commotion in the distance. A gaggle of young people in their early 20s is singing and bopping on the amphitheater steps outside the theatre. Passersby of all stripes are gawking, smiling, and taking photos. I prepare to march past until I realize: Wait… this is the rehearsal.

Well, technically the group is creating a thank-you video for a donor. "Thank you Dr. Eddie!" they sing with soulful enthusiasm. Between takes, the actors do lip trills and neck rolls, but when director Michelle Sutherland calls out "Let's do it again!", they scatter to starting positions. Once in place, they emit separate, vocalized percussive ticks and bass lines, layering one over the other until finally coming together--- harmonically and physically---to create a joyful performance of gratitude.

A cappella is not a genre I typically seek out, but these performers, with their Electric Company vibe and powerful vocal collaboration, could charm even the most cynical soul.

Sutherland played in a gypsy jazz band for 8 years before turning her attentions to the theatre, so it's no surprise that she uses music as her main tool when adapting Four Saints in Three Acts. "Stein has an instruction that it's 'an opera to be sung.' I love that instruction," she says. "She's calling for something. The text must be sung through to be understood. It's not academic, but something that needs to be engaged with a performer."

As she developed the piece, which won two awards at last year's FringeNYC festival, Sutherland first gathered seven men to create an hour an 15 minutes of sung-through material based on Stein's text. "It was magic to see men collaborating as a result of music," she says, adding that she conducted a similar experiment with an all-female group. "The women had a lot more harmonies and singing together. Now that the groups are together, they inform the others in really interesting ways."

Don't expect a traditional narrative in SAINTS!. "Stein says life doesn't have a beginning, middle, or end," Sutherland notes. "Her work is a living thing," Producer Jordan Harrison jumps in at this point, saying "The show is like an exuberant séance. There's no story, but there is intentionality and a tension that moves through the piece."

Part of the purpose is to showcase a wide variety of American music. Sutherland has tasked her 13 performers with setting various portions of Stein's text to American genres like rap, country, rock n' roll, hollerin', gospel, Shaker, bounce, jazz, and bluegrass. She points the ensemble to archival videos on YouTube, but she leaves them alone to create before solidifying the staging. "It's really messy, but I want the audience to see the vitality and creativity of these performers," she says.

And it's not just the cast's vitality that's on display. "People sometimes say America has no culture, but they're wrong," Sutherland says. "Look at American music. It's extraordinary and complicated." Echoing Stein's famous use of repetition, she adds that SAINTS "works because it works. Music is an ancient performance mode of communication. It's vibrational, and the quality of the group's togetherness is in the vibration. And that gets into the bodies of onlookers. It's joyful."

I'm late for my next meeting, but I make sure to catch one last song outdoors. I leave with a buzz in my step.


Eliza Bent is a journalist, playwright, and performer living in Brooklyn</i>

Photo by Jordan Harrison