Posted on June 28, 2015 at 7:24 pm
I could not have known when I scheduled this week’s concert in Huntsville, Alabama, that we would be in the middle of a roller-coaster ride through ten historic days in this nation’s history, starting with the unspeakable horror of last week’s shooting in Charleston and ending, in what would have been unimaginable even five years ago, with the exhilarating affirmation from the Supreme Court that gay marriage is legal across the entire United States.
But that triumphant ending was yet to come when I did my concert at the Von Braun Center on Thursday night, and what was most on my mind when the concert started were the increasingly insistent calls from Democrats and Republicans alike for the Confederate Flag to be removed from the state capitol in South Carolina, as well as (to my delighted surprise) a renewed critical consideration of Confederate symbolism throughout the country, in light of the terrorist attack on “Mother Emanuel.”
Such intense focus on the events and legacy of the Civil War couldn’t help but affect my thoughts as I flew into Alabama, home of the first capital of the Confederate States of America and the site of Rosa Parks’s fateful bus ride in 1955. In truth, any time I do a concert in Southern states, I am always sharply conscious of the differences between me and the demographically average Southerner – my religion, my political leanings, my relationship to guns, to trucks, to gay men and women. My wife and her family, for that matter, were all raised in the South, and most of my in-laws still live below the Mason-Dixon line, so family gatherings tend to highlight these differences as well. At any rate, it would be difficult not to notice simply by driving down any main street in Alabama how little it resembles the world I live in now.
Nonetheless, when I was putting the set list for the concert together, I wasn’t thinking politics – I mainly concerned myself with a running order that would showcase the guest artists I was featuring as well as pace the performance so that it built well to the end of each act. The set list was pretty standard, the natural evolution of the concerts I’ve been doing for the last ten years, some songs brand new and some songs that have been part of my repertoire since the first concerts I did in the 90s.
“The Old Red Hills of Home” is almost always in my set – it’s one of the few songs from Parade that I can perform by myself, and I don’t generally have to give a lot of context to set it up. And to the degree that these concerts are ever easy, “The Old Red Hills” is one of the less stressful parts of the show, both vocally and pianistically. So I was caught entirely off guard when I sang the words “in a home safe from fear, when the Southland is free.” Being “in character” means that I have to embody not just a particular vocal quality or physical affect but that I have to allow myself to be in the same state of mind that, in this case, a young Confederate soldier would be in. I’m not a good enough actor to be able to shut out the reality of who I am or in what context I’m performing, which made for a highly dissonant emotional experience – “Til they’ve paid for what they’ve wrought,/ Taken back the lies they’ve taught…”, I sang, and it hurt to sing it, it cost me something, and it curdled in the air, as well it should have on that night, in the middle of that tumultuous week. I finished the song and was utterly disoriented. Parade takes place over a century ago, and yet the resonances of the Civil War that drive that story are still plainly felt today. Any number of political writers can do a better job than I ever could of tracing those echoes back to their source (Jelani Cobb does a succinct and magisterial job of it in The New Yorker this week), but I can tell you how terrifyingly close it all felt, how impossible it was for any of us to look each other in the eye when the song was done.
Today I celebrate Pride Day here in New York City, and I celebrate the extraordinary events of the last ten days, and I mourn the nine innocents murdered in Charleston, and I wonder whether some wounds ever heal. This week suggests that progress can happen, and that even if it sometimes feels like “one step forward, two steps back,” we have to focus on the one step forward, and then keep walking on.
Getting Ready from 13 (Cast of 13)
It All Fades Away from The Bridges of Madison County
I Could Be In Love With Someone Like You from Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes
Long Long Road from Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes
I Love Betsy from Honeymoon In Vegas
She Cries from Songs for a New World
The Old Red Hills of Home from Parade
Wondering from The Bridges of Madison County
Fifty Years Long (world premiere)
Moving Too Fast from The Last Five Years
Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles from The Bridges of Madison County (Luz Ladrillono & Breck Robinson)
King of the World from Songs for a New World
All Things In Time from Jason Robert Brown In Concert with Anika Noni Rose
Caravan of Angels from Jason Robert Brown In Concert with Anika Noni Rose
If That’s What It Is from 13 (Marcus Gladney, Abby Sledd & Cameron DuVall)
A Little More Homework from 13 (Cast of 13)
Brand New You from 13 (Cast of 13)
Someone To Fall Back On from Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes
My thanks to Robert and Luz Ladrillono, who have done a wonderful job at settling Lyrique Music Productions into Huntsville’s theater community, and who have enthusiastically and diligently brought me and my work into the otherwise unfamiliar territory of North Alabama. The cast members and music director of their recent production of 13 performed during the concert with me, and they were excellent and musical and strong.