Arena Players and Baltimore Rock Opera Society collaborate on a biomusical double bill—and one small step toward creative desegregation

Valerie Lewis as Present Katherine Johnson in “The Determination of Azimuth.” Photo by Sean McCormick (sean-mccormick.com), courtesy Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

Aran Keating is trying to get three humans to realize they’re immortals.

The Baltimore Rock Opera Society artistic director is helming one of the two musical shorts in BROS’ “Constellations & Crossroads” double bill that opens Feb. 9. On this Tuesday night, 10 days prior to that opening, he wants to run entirely through “The Battle of Blue Apple Crossing,” an allegory of blues legend Robert Johnson’s Faustian pact to acquire his guitar virtuosity, written by veteran BROS member Nairobi Collins.

“Blue Apple” castmates Charence Higgins, Valerie Lewis, and James Watson worked with the show’s five-piece band and have the songs down. Now, Keating wants to get everybody in the right headspace for the show. He explains what the set is going to look like, with a giant tree over there and its roots and branches sneaking out over here, here, and here. Watson swings around the prop axe he’s going to be using onstage. They only have digital recordings for musical accompaniment, so Keating’s going to voice all the other sound effects so they can tighten up their blocking and cueing. The cast needs to become their characters onstage, and Keating tells them: “Embody the gods that you are.”

Gods, axes, imaginative sets, rock ‘n’ roll—just another night in the maximum-everything world that BROS creates with such wanton enthusiasm. Except, with these restagings of “Blue Apple Crossing” and “Determination of Azimuth,” two shorts that first debuted in 2015 as part of the company’s “Six Pack,” BROS is intentionally trying to address one of its self-admitted shortcomings. “Blue Apple” and “Azimuth,” which imaginatively recounts NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson’s calculations that brought the Apollo 11 mission home in 1969, are African-American stories. And BROS knows it is an overwhelmingly white organization. For “Constellations & Crossroads,” BROS, one of the few rock opera companies in the country, is collaborating with Baltimore’s Arena Players, the oldest, continually running African-American community theater in the country.

This Tuesday night rehearsal takes place inside Arena’s intimately epic McCulloh Street theater, that wonderfully singular building off Martin Luther King Boulevard just above Seton Hill. Higgins, Keating, Lewis, and Watson, along with stage manager Liz Richardson and vocal coach Charles Armstrong, run through “Blue Apple” in the nearly 300-seat theater. In a second-floor rehearsal room, Lola B. Pierson is working with the cast of “Azimuth,” which she is co-directing. In the lobby, Arena artistic director Donald Owens is rehearsing “Praise the Lord and Raise the Roof,” which opens after “Constellations.” And wandering around the building is Arena’s associate artistic director David Mitchell, who is working on “Hoodoo Love,” which opens in April.

Arena and BROS see the production as a mutually beneficial partnership; a different kind of programming for Arena, a different talent pool of actors for BROS, and, ideally, exposing Arena audiences to BROS and vice-versa. A $5,000 Mayor’s Individual Artist Award from the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts is helping to cover artist stipends. Arena is providing its theater and rehearsal space. And both organizations are going to split ticket sales 50-50.

The very fact that this collaboration is happening voices something theater artists of color know from experience: that the local theater community is as segregated as everything else in Baltimore. But 10 days before opening, such macro discussions of how to desegregate local theater take a backseat to the micro concerns of rehearsal. Tech runs are coming up, actors need to be microphoned and EQ’d, sets installed. Stage manager Richardson sits in a front row with a production binder, cell phone with digital recordings of “Blue Apple” music, and a small speaker. Notes, scripts, and sheet music from both musicals spill out of her binder, and she jokes that she should carry a three-hole punch around with her. Then she kinda hums something to herself for a second as she jots down a few notes, and laughs.

“I see every show more than anybody who isn’t in it,” she says. “So lately I’ve been running around humming songs about rocket science.”

Valerie Lewis as Jesus in “The Battle of Blue Apple Crossing.” Photo by Sean McCormick (sean-mccormick.com), courtesy Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

“I’m Jesus,” Valerie Lewis says, tilts her head slightly, and smiles. “You know, typical typecasting.”

Lewis is one of the “Constellations & Crossroads” cast members who may never have been in a BROS production if not for this collaboration. Trained as an opera singer, she started getting into musicals and acting through Arena, auditioning for “Dreamgirls.” She was cast as Deena, the Beyoncé role for all y’all who only saw the movie.

She’s been involved with regional stage performance ever since, with Arena, Fells Point Corner Theater, the interactive troupe Dance & Bmore, and others. When Arena put out the casting call for “Constellations & Crossroads,” the “rock opera” part had her intrigued. She’s a “Jesus Christ Superstar” fan.

“It’s totally my favorite musical,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be Judas because I think he’s got the best songs, but being a girl, you only get offered Mary. She’s only got a few songs. When this [opportunity] came up, I didn’t know what it would entail, but I saw ‘rock opera’ and immediately thought ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ and, yeah, I want to try that. Who doesn’t want to wail onstage?”

She was less familiar with BROS. A friend of hers worked on one of BROS’ Artscape performances, which she saw. BROS “seemed like this wild, outside the norm group,” Lewis says. “That’s kind of cool, but I thought I could never do that.”

Lewis, a born and raised Baltimorean who attended School for the Arts and the Peabody Institute, has a voice that can stop traffic. She’s starring in both “Blue Apple” as Jesus, and “Azimuth” as Katherine Johnson.

“She’s fucking incredible,” says Lola B. Pierson of Lewis. Pierson directed the original “Azimuth” in 2015 and returns for this remount, which has been updated and changed slightly. Co-creator Heather Graham added some more biographical details and is co-directing this version; the approach is more adventurous (there’s two Katherine Johnsons in two different timelines). The score is also completely new. Horse Lords’ Andrew Bernstein composed the original, but he didn’t have the time to update it for the new parts. Cellist/composer Zack Branch wrote the new score, which has a more minimal, Philip Glassian vibe that changes the production’s entire mood.

Charity Jones as Florence (left), Taylor J. Washington as Ama, Alo Seda as Dorothy, and Caelyn Sommerville as Past Katherine Johnson in “The Determination of Azimuth.” Photo by Sean McCormick (sean-mccormick.com), courtesy Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

At the first rehearsal for “Azimuth,” Pierson says Lewis arrived with an idea of her character in mind, and was able to deliver lines and sing in character, the same way, through multiple runs.

“I was just, like, ‘Well, you’re done,’” Pierson says with a laugh, adding that, for her, directing means trying to do something impossible and getting a bunch of really talented people to figure out how to do it. “I never have the best ideas, I’m just good at saying, ‘That’s the best idea.’ So, for me, the actors are changing [this ‘Azimuth’] a lot.”

Every BROS member I talked to for this piece remarked on the quality of the performers that Arena brought into their orbit.

“We’ve always tried to get more people of color in [BROS] but it seems like what we offer is not something they generally come rushing to,” says Nairobi Collins, who wrote “Blue Apple.” “So we’d have like two or three and me. But the auditions for this, we had so much black talent coming in. There’s just like a cornucopia of people who can do everything. They’re so A-list.”

The whiteness of what’s called Baltimore’s DIY/community theater scene is part of an ongoing racial discussion local artists have been trying to have since even before the 2015 uprising. And BROS members recognize that they haven’t done enough work to address those shortcomings in their own organization.

“We know that a lot of our audience, our volunteers, our actors, musicians, directors, and designers are primarily white and in a city like Baltimore we think that that’s not the right way to go about things,” says Debra Lenik, BROS’ production director, who first suggested the Arena Players collaboration. She says she knows BROS historically hasn’t, say, put out enough casting calls or even advertising outside the neighborhoods where many BROS volunteers and audience members live, such as Station North, Charles Village, Hamilton/Lauraville, and Hampden. And just the nature of being a volunteer company can be a barrier to participation. Meetings, rehearsals, and set or prop building often happens at night and on weekends, which can be difficult to manage if you work a job that isn’t 9-5 or have childcare needs.

“I want to make sure that we can do more to reduce barriers to entry to BROS for everyone,” Lenik says, acknowledging that a collaboration like this one is but a small, first step toward that goal. The next steps will involve finding ways to sustain the working relationships made through this endeavor.

“One of the advantages of this collaboration is that it’s been a very good working relationship,” says Donald Owens, Arena’s artistic director, who adds that when BROS approached him with the idea of doing these two productions, he felt they complimented Arena’s audience and talent network. “I’ve tried to collaborate a couple of times before, but it wasn’t a good working relationship. Theater is very segregated, so there was not that much collaboration done, black or white.”

Owens is a veteran actor, director, and theater educator who has worked with Arena Players since the 1970s, after he first moved to Baltimore. He came to Arena classically trained, and working with the company gave him a richer appreciation of contemporary black theater.

“Arena Players was formed because blacks had no place to perform unless you want to be a servant, butler, or something like that,” he says, noting that Arena is one of the few companies in Baltimore consistently producing works by black playwrights.

And if the people who make theater aren’t being exposed to the wider range of plays, playwrights, and roles, the audiences they reach aren’t, either. So the very process of making art that speaks to an artists’ identity can end up segregating artists and audiences by race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

“I know artists don’t like to hear that said about them because they believe they can get together as artists and celebrate, [tell each other] ‘I love you guys,’ but we often have no association outside of that process,” Owens says. “How can you love me? You don’t know me yet.”

James Watson (left) as Papa Legba and Charence Higgins as Devil in “The Battle of Blue Apple Crossing.” Photo by Sean McCormick (sean-mccormick.com), courtesy Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

Both “Blue Apple” and “Azimuth” debuted as part of the BROS “Six Pack” over the weekends of May 21-24 and 28-31, 2015, about a month following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody and the protests and uprising that followed. May 2015 also ended up being the deadliest and most violent month in the city’s history since the 1970s. BROS were working on those productions during that time, and Pierson recalls that, of course, the tensions of the city at large were seeping into the rehearsal space.

“That was a very specific time in Baltimore’s history and now, two years later, we’re at another very specific time in our history,” Pierson says. As a Baltimore native, she attended city public schools, and she probably saw her first play ever during a class trip at Arena.

“I have complicated feelings about working on this show,” she says. “I’m a white woman directing this show about a black woman, written by another white woman, and I feel unresolved about it. And yet I’m super grateful to be doing this, to be working at this theater that I admire and think is a really big deal.”

Additionally, “there’s been this thing going on, which I’ve totally benefitted from over the last five to 10 years, where politicians and publications are embracing the white artist movement, saying, ‘There’s something really exciting going on in Baltimore,’” she continues. “I mean, I’ve done that. And yet Arena’s been here the whole fucking time. So this [production] really feels like a synthesis of two companies. It genuinely feels like people who don’t know each other are getting to know each other.”

Pierson’s zeroing in on what, thus far, is making “Constellations & Crossroads” such a quietly radical process. While it is entirely possible that an Arena and BROS collaboration could have happened without the ongoing dialogue about race relations in Baltimore and the art community post-uprising, I don’t think the self-examination of whiteness that the artists involved are pursuing takes place without the activism, advocacy work, and public and social media discussions of the past two years.

So while BROS recognizing that as a majority white theater company it’s not equipped to produce two black stories in a black theater on its own can feel like a no brainer in 2018, remember: This year we also saw Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, the Chicago-based boutique advertising firm Highdive, and the Intellectual Properties Management company that licenses the estate of Martin Luther King Jr. sign off on using a King speech from 1968, one that includes warnings about the lies of capitalism, to sell Dodge trucks.

“We want to be more diverse and inclusive,” BROS artistic director Aran Keating says. “It’s a good thing to have that desire but it’s a meaningless gesture just in its own right, you know? BROS is super ambitious as far as what we’re trying to accomplish onstage, and this process is about setting a different bar higher. It’s not just important that we push ourselves to do the bigger, crazier productions. Let’s also set a high bar for how we can improve our community.”

Of course, calling anything “our” community makes assumptions about who is and isn’t included in the first-person plural.

“That’s the tough part of integration, we have different missions with our theaters,” says Collins, BROS member and “Blue Apples” creator. “I’m a Navy kid, so it took me a while to come into my blackness and understand that my taste in music comes from all that stemmed from the theft of black rock’n’roll. But I also feel like I don’t see that many black rock operas. I see a lot of soul musicals. And I see a lot of gospel musicals. I don’t know what else happens in black theaters because it seems to be so insulated from me. I’m trying to find a way to grab them and say, ‘We do rock opera, too—and I would really like to see more of us doing it.’”

Collins’ desire to see more blackness in BROS is what initially inspired “Blue Apple.” He liked the idea of the Robert Johnson’s crossroads tale, but not the 1986 movie starring Ralph Macchio that was inspired by that legend. In the film the guitar “battle really bothered me because it’s two white guys playing guitar, and the winner plays a Bach fugue or something,” Collins says. “I thought that fundamentally wrong and that’s what originally sparked me to write it. Then I started asking, what happens to souls of black folks? Like, why would we subscribe to Christianity when clearly it’s been nothing but bad for us the whole time? So I started thinking about what is it like to be alive and worry about pandering to a hereafter, especially if you’re black.”

“Azimuth” stemmed from a different effort to add more African-American stories to a space lacking them. Co-creator Heather Graham works in the the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory in the Astrochemistry Division at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt; one of the projects she works on is the Mars Science Laboratory on the Curiosity rover. When she was in grad school, she participated in the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 that placed STEM grad students in at-risk schools. Graham spent two years with a majority African-American middle school in Harrisburg, Pa., helping with curriculum and coming up with ways to teach science through hands-on experiments. And for Black History Month in 2010, she suggested focusing on black scientists. The teacher she was paired with told her that the school already had a teaching unit on George Washington Carver, who admittedly came up with farming advancements a century ago, but it wasn’t exactly current.

“I just really felt like kids in that classroom had no connection to the fact that people with their backgrounds and skin color are doing great science right now,” Graham says. She put together a 28-day February calendar that included black scientists dating from the Revolutionary War era to the present, including Katherine Johnson, whose story resonated with her.

The cast and crew of “Constellations & Crossroads.” Photo by Sean McCormick (sean-mccormick.com), courtesy Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

When BROS put out a call for ideas for the “Six Pack,” Graham pitched the Johnson story. At the time, neither writer Margot Lee Shatterly’s 2016 book “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race” nor its commercially and critically embraced film adaptation of the same year had come out, and Graham researched some of the same resources that Shatterly turned into such an informatively gripping book: Langley Research Center historians and NASA’s Apollo archives. Graham even reached out to Shatterly about her manuscript.

For Johnson’s dialog in “Azimuth,” Graham used things the mathematician actually said in interviews with media over the years. And all the lyrics in the opera are taken from papers Johnson co-authored, including the one that gives the musical its name: “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position.” In Johnson’s computations “there’s all these things that I think of as being deeply meaningful,” Graham says. “She talks about the idea of pushing against the environment, how the only way to enact change [in rocket trajectory] is to push hard enough against the environment. And that’s what she does in her life.”

“From a female perspective and certainly from an African-American perspective, people always make you feel like women can’t do science, can’t do numbers, can’t do any of these things and that’s absolutely not true,” Valerie Lewis says of her character’s story. “If more people knew about [Johnson], don’t you think more women would be encouraged to go into that field? That’s an interest to me. Plus, this was written by a woman who is a scientist for NASA, and I thought that was cool.”

Pierson admits that she typically finds overcoming obstacles narratives a little cheesy; it’s not the kind of story that she usually directs. “So much of my stuff deals with existentialism and the human condition,” Pierson says. “As a white artist, I don’t personally think it’s appropriate for me to be delving into black existentialism or black questions of the human condition.  But I do have a really strong emotional reaction to this [‘Azimuth’]. I’m mean, she’s a black woman scientist who says I want to be in the fucking briefings in the 1960s, and what she’s doing, she’s doing it backward and in heels. That to me is existentialism right there. That’s the human condition. How far can we push ourselves, because human beings are endlessly capable.”

Pierson also appreciates something Graham’s told her: It’s not genius that put people into space.

“It’s hundreds of people working together as a team that put people into space as part of the Apollo program,” Graham says. We may remember the astronauts by name, but that team included many “African-American women who sat with slide rules and really archaic calculators the size of a microwave making calculations. That’s how science works. Advances in science are about 95 percent incremental and 5 percent visionary. That’s actually a good ratio, because you have to have enough support for any crazy idea so that you can ensure that you can do it again.”

A whole bunch of support and a little bit of crazy—that’s how theater works, too.

“All BROS shows start with an idea that’s like a thrill,” Keating says. “I think that that thrill is the most important thing. It’s often the hardest thing to keep in mind because you get caught up in trying to tell the story and sometimes those things get in the way of you making somebody fucking feel something and walk out of that theater just amped up, blood rushing, feeling alive and inspired. That is why I’m part of this company, because I want to touch people in a way that gets them inspired to go out and make their own art, to go out and expect more from the art that they that they do and want to see. And you have to get to keep that vision in mind all the time. Why are we here? What are we trying to accomplish?”

With “Constellations & Crossroads,” BROS and Arena Players are trying to stage two amazing pieces of theater and make a small step toward desegregating two small corners of Baltimore theater. They’re trying to reach new audiences and figure out how to work together in different ways. They’re trying to stay true to who they are and become better versions of themselves.

So they’re putting in the work. After Higgins, Lewis, and Watson run through “Blue Apple” once, Keating calls them to the front of the stage where he and vocal coach Armstrong go over some notes they made. Armstrong says they’re going to have a flourish session later in the week so they can practice some vocal variations they can use in the gospel song that closes the play. Keating compliments Lewis on how she’s finding her Jesus power. They all offer Watson different ways for not saying the lone “motherfucker” in the libretto. Keating reminds Watson that when he’s addressing the tree, he’s speaking to the souls of people. Keating tells Higgins that as the Devil, she commands respect, and when Jesus tries to push her around she should feel OK about embracing her rage. The cast asks about the sequence of a certain special effect, and Keating thinks for a second and rattles off: lighting bolt, big thunderclap, wind, more wind, big crack, wind, silence.

Rehearsals aren’t mere practice, they’re feats of imagination to summon what reality is going to look and feel like when it’s time to perform in front of an audience. So cast and crew imagine what the theater is going to look like when the auditorium is full. They imagine what the stage is going to look like when it’s dressed. Imagine what Baltimore could look like when its theater companies break down barriers that might be keeping them from becoming more diverse and inclusive. Imagine what kind of effect art can have on the people it touches. Imagine harder.

“OK,” Keating says, checking the clock. “Let’s run through this one more time.”

“Constellations & Crossroads” continues Feb. 16-18 at Arena Players.

 

  • Chris Ashworth

    Thanks for this great article Bret. One important typo correction: a few times through the piece Charence is referred to using my last name instead of hers. (Believe you me, I wish I could sing like her!)

    Anyway, come check out this show folks, it’s a fun one.

    • 5aiah

      Good luck, sir. Thanks for making Baltimore a better place.

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