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How a new musical is helping to correct a whitewashed history
The phrase "crossing the river" has a special meaning for African Americans. Variations on this saying appear in many Negro spirituals, usually referring to the River Jordan which, according to the Old Testament, made way for the Israelites to cross over to the Promised Land. For slaves in the antebellum South, "crossing the river" was a metaphor for escaping bondage, either in this world or the next.
Jazz musician Allan Harris combined that idea of deliverance and his own family background for his new Off-Broadway musical Cross That River, about an escaped slave named Blue who traverses the Sabine and finds freedom as a cowboy in the Old West. Harris composed the music, co-wrote the book and lyrics with his wife Pat, and stars in this semi-staged production as the older version of Blue, who reflects on the twists and turns of his life.
"I've always been wanting to tell this story -- it's always been inside me," Harris says. Born in New York City, he grew up in a family that was passionate about the arts but also had a history of working the land. Every summer as a young boy, Harris left Brooklyn to spend two months on his grandfather's 600-acre horse farm in rural Pennsylvania. "I was empowered as a child, being with a man of color who not only employed other people of color, he employed myriads of white men, too," Harris says. Yet his classmates were skeptical of his "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" stories. "Black people don't ride horses!" they protested.
But Harris knew different. At age ten, he moved to the farm full-time and became part of a legacy of black men with horse skills. "A lot of people in my family were rodeo riders and horse trainers," he says. They also knew and honored the history of African Americans on the frontier, as homesteaders, soldiers, and cattlemen. Harris's father, whom he describes as "a hell of a horseman," was instrumental in passing that information on to him. "My father made it a point to open a lot of doors for me, through stories, through books, and through people that he knew who were cowboys," Harris says.
Ultimately, Harris left the farm to pursue a career as a jazz singer, guitarist, and songwriter. He's recorded numerous albums and played at storied music venues around the world, but Cross That River is his first foray into theatre. It began as a concept album over a decade ago, and Harris admits some of his colleagues didn't understand his change in direction. "I'm known as a romantic balladeer, and I've actually had people in my genre, close friends, who have looked at me and said, 'Are you foolish, to be doing this?'" he recalls. But -- like Kirsten Childs and her recent musical Bella: An American Tall Tale -- Harris wanted to shine a light on the diversity of the Old West. He bemoans the fact that for many people, including African Americans, the words "black cowboy" primarily evoke memories of "Blazing Goddamn Saddles" or Jamie Foxx as the gunslinging Django. "I was surprised that my peers, and people that I grew up with, had no idea of this."
Although Blue, the hero of Cross That River, isn't based on a particular person, he represents the thousands of black men who reinvented themselves as cowboys during and after the Civil War. And while the show takes place during an extremely troubled period in American history, Harris believes it's an uplifting tale. "It was a time in our country that we worked together," he says, noting that black and white cowboys lived side by side. The songs he's written for the piece reflect that idea by mixing gospel, country and western, African, and jazz traditions.
And Harris says he's not done with this material yet. He's planning a novel and even hopes to see this story on the silver screen: His dream is to "sit in the audience at some cinema" as a shirtless Idris Elba "rides up to the camera and says, 'My name's Blue.' I've told my wife this," he says. "She loves it!"
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker, and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre..
Top image: Allan Harris in Cross That River. Photos by Carol Rosegg.