Rochester Fringe Festival Day 2: Words and music from 150 years ago

Sep 14, 2018

Two days into the KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival, and already we have a bold statement on these times. Words, and music, coming back to us from 150 years ago.

It’s a tough call to say what was more impressive Thursday night at the Lyric Theatre and First Inversion’s Holding on Through Song: A Celebration of the African-American Spiritual. The music? Or the message? An evening of spirituals, backed by a chorus, but otherwise allowed to stand naked, save for brushes of piano, violin and the words of Frederick Douglass, born a slave, and his fellow slaves.

The opening invocation by Rev. Patrick Crumity of Mount Olivet Baptist Church set the tone. These spirituals, the soundtrack of slavery in America, he said, were voices of pain and anguish. He pondered if we had really left that atrocity behind us, “in light of these current events.” Left unsaid: Black Lives Matter, the rise of racism and bigotry, a president who just one year ago looked at death during a white nationalism rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and saw “some very fine people on both sides.”

In the beautiful Lyric Theatre, built for the spoken word and song, the First Inversion choir carried the night like the breeze coming through an open window, announcing a coming storm. First among a handful of vocalists, the astounding soprano Kearstin Piper-Brown sang “Over My Head,” followed by tenor Marcus Jefferson and “Were You There.” But each introduced their pieces with spoken word. Piper-Brown quoted the words of a slave who wrote of spirituals, “We did it to keep down trouble and to keep our hearts from being broken.” Jefferson read the words of Douglass, who recalled as a slave having his skin ripped by a whip during the week, only to witness the hypocrisy of being taught the benevolence of Christianity on Sunday.  

Departing from the evening’s printed schedule, First Inversion Artistic Director Lee Wright took a moment to echo Crumity’s words. “There has been some controversy in the last few weeks about this show, and whether it should go on,” he said, referring to a debate that erupted on social media in which critics complained that the show was a negative depiction of black people, and that the mostly-white choir was appropriating black culture.

It is a complex question, one that likely does not present a simple answer. Is Piper-Brown, a black woman, and a trained classical singer, appropriating white European culture when she sings with an orchestra? Is film and music that draws on the Holocaust solely the domain of Jewish artists? 

The debate “has to go deeper,” Wright said, considering “the awful state of affairs we are in this moment.”

And as a society, these arts must be a communal learning experience, he said, drawing on his own experience. “Yes, I’ve had the police called on me when I was walking in my own neighborhood, Park Avenue, 15 or 16 years ago,” he recalled.

“It can end tragically.”        

Holding on Through Song returns to Rochester Fringe at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Tymisha Harris as Josephine Baker
Credit Jeff Spevak / for WXXI News

Josephine Baker: ‘La Vie En Rose’

Tymisha Harris captures all that makes Josephine Baker one of the most-intriguing personalities of the 20th century in Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play, her marvelous, one-woman musical at the School of the Arts’ Allen Main Stage.

Born in 1906 in the United States, Baker escaped poverty, anonymity and “cleaning white peoples’ clothes” only upon moving to Paris, where she became a star. “I loved the country as much that spurned me as the country that embraced me,” Harris’ Baker says early on, and nationality was only one aspect of her conflicted life. “Love has never really lasted for me,” Baker says, as she spins through marriages and lovers, both men and women. Picasso and e.e. cummings among them, she claims. “I started wondering if love and happiness are two separate things.”

She was stylish. Her dancing, costumes and behavior were considered scandalous, although apparently the French could handle it. Harris runs through a dozen costume changes, including one in the midst of the audience, where she finds a guy to help her put on her furry bra, pointing out as he fumbles about that, “You must take them off more than you put them on.” Harris even reproduces Baker’s most-notorious costume, a banananatomically correct skirt, with the fruit later serving as risqué sight gag when she compares lovers.   

“Paris celebrated my blackness,” Baker says, yet she never escapes race as a part of her life. A return to America is not a success. The New York Times calls her “a Negro wench,” and Baker despairs that “America was not ready.” So back to Paris she goes, for “parties with all the good homosexuals.” As the Nazis occupy Paris during World War II, Baker goes to work for the French resistance, which figures her celebrity will allow her to carrying secret correspondence in her underwear. “The only person they don’t strip search is an exhibitionist,” she notes. There is even a brief dressing-room encounter with Nazi party leader Hermann Goering, who tells her, “Your beauty is a great exception to your race.”

Coming to Rochester Fringe from off-Broadway, Harris’ Baker performs raunchy dances and an elegant feather dance. She sings “Blue Skies” when things are looking up, “Strange Fruit” when she confronts racism after being called to America once again by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights movement. “The Times They Are A-Changing” is a particularly poignant and moving choice for the aging Baker. And that was not dream. In her real life Baker really did sing the Bob Dylan song. But chances are, after meeting Harris’ Baker, you’ll walk out of the theater with a different tune running through your head: The winsome “La Vie En Rose.”

Josephine: A Burlesque Cabaret Dream Play continues at Rochester Fringe 9 p.m. Friday, 9 p.m. Sept. 21 and 9 p.m. Sept. 22.

Fringe Day Three

Credit Tony Virgo / Rochester Fringe Festival

Rochester Fringe really kicks into gear Friday and Saturday with the big Parcel 5 free show featuring the North American premiere of Massaoke, a British-bred, mass-karaoke event with a live band playing arena-rock classics; the lyrics will be on a screen behind the band just in case you’ve forgotten the words. Both Friday and Saturday Massaoke shows are at 8:30 p.m., but the gates open at 5 p.m. with local bands.

Friday is also the first night for the silent disco, which feels like a companion piece to Massaoke as headphone-wearing dancers move to music only they can hear; it starts at 11 p.m. in the Spiegeltent.

Check rochesterfringe.com for a complete schedule and tickets. Some events to consider:

A night for classic rock. The University of Rochester’s Institute for Popular Music re-creates two monsters of ’70s progressive rock at Kilbourn Hall. At 7 p.m., it’s Yes’ The Yes Album, with a couple of extras. Then at 9 p.m., Led Zeppelin IV. These separately-ticketed shows are $10 each.

Garth Fagan Dance, 7 p.m., Garth Fagan Dance Studio. Fagan and Norwood Penniwell lead guests through an informal tour of new works and some of Fagan’s classic dances. The troupe also hits the floor 7 p.m. Sept. 20 and 7 p.m. Sept. 21, with matinees featuring the Gary Fagan Student Dance Ensemble 2 p.m. Saturday and again 2 p.m. Sept. 22.   

Other People’s Shows, 9:15 p.m., Spiegeltent. Alongside audience-participation moments, Rochester’s Unleashed! Improv riffs on other shows at the Rochester Fringe based on the show descriptions in the festival guide. They’ll do it again at 9:15 p.m. Saturday.

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI and Rochester-based writer, is reporting on the Fringe Festival daily at wxxinews.org. His web site is jeffspevak.com.