March arrived in Walla Walla like an ice-cold shivering lamb in a persistent and bitter southerly. Winter is still here. Distractions are needed to maintain sanity until Spring rears its head. What better distraction than The Arts?
Last Saturday I attended a Walla Walla Symphony concert, “My Words Are My Sword.” From the website of Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton, OR, where the performance was staged January 14 (https://thereser.org/event/my-words-are-my-sword/ ):
“My Words Are My Sword”, a music drama written and performed by black poet and actor Darius Wallace, explores blackness through story, monologue, poetry, and song. Composed over two years in a collaboration between Darius Wallace and local, Brazilian-born, pianist and composer Jasnam Daya Singh, and Music Director Yaacov Bergman, the work incorporates text from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, a re-enactment of Frederick Douglass’ childhood, writings by Malcolm X and Wallace himself, and poetry by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. It is a fusion of hip-hop, jazz, and classical styles.
The Arts- -performing, literary and visual- -spin visions into viewable and/or auditory experiences for all. Like any type of work or avocation, the quality of what’s produced varies. Every so often The Arts bring forth a masterwork, beautifully crafted and relevant to the BIG conversations in society.
What I mean, 9, is sometimes really good concerts or plays or books or art or dances can change how we view the world, as well as entertain.
Saturday’s performance was a case in point. Darius Wallace was the “front” of a musical and dramatic collaboration that addressed racial prejudice head-on and left me thinking about his question “When and why did we become colors?” Working from a simple set (an armchair in front of Walla Walla Symphony’s chamber orchestra) he deftly employed an array of performance techniques (configuration, characterization, storytelling, recitation, movement, song) in a riveting history of Blacks in America, some threads of which I’d never heard.
That surprises me. We’ve always been good at history.
True, Lily, but there are some nuances that don’t come through with the names and dates and events we’ve learned over the years. What struck me most was Wallace’s own poem about a lynching. Most people have heard about these, which, tragically, still happen in our country. Strange Fruit, the song Billie Holiday made famous, has lynching for its subject matter. Those lyrics describe a horrific scene, but what Wallace’s poem taught me was this: the people in his poem who conducted the lynching were in a carnival mood. They were jubilantly torturing and killing another human being.
How sick is that? And how many times have you seen this very thing in western-themed movies where “frontier justice” usurps law? I’m guessing this is the mood of murders all over the world that are mob-induced and motivated by racial, ethnic, political, religious, gender-related, and whatever other kinds of prejudice.
The Arts can shine a light on the rancid, cruel aspects of human existence, but they can also show us a path forward and reason for hope. “My Words Are My Sword” did both. Bottom line: we all need to treat people like people. I sensed discomfort from some in the audience (most of us were white and over 60). But some I’ve seen out and about this week are on fire to share what they experienced- -the power of the performance, the insights received, a call to action.
Masterful performance. Strong message. Hope. Change.
As a writer, I had to get back to my own Art on Monday. My “women’s fiction with romantic/suspense elements” novel is nearing a final draft. The book is set in contemporary Walla Walla so I’m doing local site visits to shore up setting details. Monday I met with Public Information Officer Sgt. Nick Loudermilk at the Walla Walla Police Department. He graciously gave me a tour of their interview rooms (for witnesses, victims and suspects) and answered my plot-relevant questions, mostly to do with “wearing a wire.” I won’t give away the details, other than to say it’s not what I’ve gleaned from film noir classics.
So I’m back to revisions. Again. Seeing a polished, engaging piece like “My Words Are My Sword” renews my enthusiasm to make my new book as strong as it can be.
Hopefully one day it will both entertain readers, and change them.
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