Ellen Craft

There are four shows that I was supposed to see because of personal connections, which may sound like I think I’m awesome, but actually it’s pathetic that I only know four companies in the Fringe this year. I’ve decided not to try to see “Armless” as it’s already selling fine without me, but “Ellen Craft” was something I absolutely couldn’t miss. The woman who created the piece, Sherry Boone, was a high school friend of my brother’s when I was in junior high, and, since she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen, I had to go see her opera. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but that’s how I *do*.

Ellen Craft is billed as an opera about a woman escaping slavery by posing as a white man. The main difference any more between Opera and Musical Theater is the amount of dialogue and the style of singing. Operas generally have no dialogue at all and the singing is more legit. But, of course, “Secret Garden” has almost no dialogue and the singing is legit, so who knows what counts any more.

I was still cautious. I sat down and prayed that the show would be good. A friend of mine runs the space and I’d seen Sherry before the show, I was gonna have to tell them what I thought, and in person. As the lights went down, I hoped I would have something good to say.

From the beginning electrifying moments, this play knocked me out of my seat. Horrible screams and drums as a woman wrapped in a kanga is chased across stage until finally caught, the spirit of the African-American incarnate, segues immediately into the plantation life, where ten year old Ellen is given to the white mistress as a gift. “You will love her” the master promises his wife, even as she discovers that Ellen is her husband’s daughter, presumably by rape. “You will love her” is either a promise or an order, and it isn’t made clear. And as he tells her the difference between the slaves he impregnates (which is “economy”) and the life he has with her, he uses the word “love”.

(A quick music lesson from a guy who barely knows what he’s talking about. There are notes that people call “leading tones” and “suspensions”, and these have, y’know, real meanings, but I find that when I use them the way I like to, everyone understands what I mean. These are notes that don’t fit in perfectly into the chord, notes that sound wrong (suspensions) or one step away from the note you want them to go to (leading tones). This isn’t what the words actually mean (suspensions are usually the 2 or 4 played with the triad, and the leading tone is usually the 7 or something that is just *dying* to go to the 1, but just bear with me…)

When the master sings the word “love” he hits this leading tone, sustains it, and finally slides into the note that the audience wants to hear. As soon as I heard that, I knew this was going to be wonderful, and I relaxed a little. I ended up seeing the most rewarding evening of theater I’ve had in months.

Most of the cast spends the show on stage, white actors and black actors, watching the story unfold, like witnesses at a mob scene. The director understood the limitations of the Fringe, even being in arguably its best venue, and used four boxes and a large piece of muslin as the only set pieces. The muslin held on its side for a field of cotton, used as a wave when they are near the ocean, and always the cast watching the action, to reinforce to the audience that the horror of slavery happened in front of everyone. It was not some silent crime, it was accepted by everyone, everywhere.

The music was tuneful, but not song-ful, if that makes sense. The love song between Ellen and her lover in act one is incredible, both in lyric and in melody. The spiritual sung by the innocent holy man is a brilliant example of how to write a song you can hang your hat on without re-writing a song that’s been done a million times before. And the end of the first act, as Ellen is leaving and all of the themes of the opera begin weaving together, is transporting. I left for intermission breathless.

The second act is wonderful, but not quite as charged. There are two journeys in the play, Ellen’s life as a slave and her finding the inner strength to fight against incredible odds and seemingly the whole world to gain her freedom, and the physical journey of traveling across the United States. You can see that the second act would be slightly less charged, but they still keep the stakes high. When she reaches the last slave state and they say they will allow her to go, but not her “boy”, she passes out and we see the entire cast of black men hanging from nooses. To say there is no drama is a misunderstanding, but the real battle is the battle of the mind, which she makes clear at the end by begging her man, and us, to forgive America for this crime and to move on.

The music is lush and rhapsodic, the lyrics are spare, poignant, pointed and *useful*, the characters are well drawn and compelling and the staging is deft and effective. Yes, it is a deconstruction of a moment in our nation’s history, and sure, it is preaching to us about the ills of this period, but art is useless unless it instructs. This is what an evening of theater is supposed to give you.

I’m not going to say much about Jonestown, The Musical . I was expecting that the slaughter of innocents in a power fueled rage in the jungles of Guyana by a messiah like cult leader would be handled with at least a modicum of respect, but this was a straw hat and cane musical in the vein of the worst of what’s out there now. The music was trite, the characters ridiculous, the cast chosen for their apparent gym work-ethic and the plot seemingly picked out of “Our Dumb Century” at random. However, it’s possible that after the first forty five minutes the show became bearable. My disbelief in God was, for a moment, turned on its head when the fire alarm went off and I was allowed to leave the theater, thus answering a prayer I was too furious to know I was making.