I haven’t been to a live performance in a very long time, and it was apparent when I entered Royce Hall. Seeing the stage and house set up with lights, various instruments and a round raised platform on stage, I took a long drink in from my surroundings, thoroughly letting my soul be quenched. It’s a cliche phrase, but it’s completely true. The same way one may receive a sense of solemn ritual by entering a church, I too have a sensitivity to the theater–I have come to know that I may experience something innovative or profound. Even when the world around me may make the thrill of movies or feats of technology tools commonplace, I still hold my moment with world-class talented performers in high regard as a one-time, fleeting affair.
What is it?
I told my friend who joined me that we were going to a theater performance. On the way there she asked, “So what is it we’re seeing?” I didn’t answer right away, and I couldn’t give her a category, which would have helped her associate, yet pigeonhole, our potentially profound experience with something else clearly defined in her scope of knowing. “Is it a play?” she insisted, not understanding why her question was so difficult for me to answer. I tend to go to performances and let my experience create a personal understanding. And so I thought ‘theater performance’ was enough at the moment. I said that the work we were going to see was not a recitation or a new vision of a previously fully-formed written play.
I love new works. I like boundary-pushers. I like not categorizing things, and having them stand for themselves. To call Steel Hammer a play is to recite the one-line legend of John Henry and call it a day. Fairly, director Anne Bogart calls her work a play, but “it’s not an easy play; it’s demanding. It’s a gym for the soul. You go for a workout — emotional and physical.”1 I hope that this work is not merely categorized, but discussed enough to convey that it is so much more.
The legend of John Henry is the account of an epically strong, steel driving railroad worker who out-hammered a steam engine and lost his life in the process. We saw Julia Wolfe’s 2009 Pulitzer-prize nominated evening-length music Steel Hammer performed by the three amazing vocalists of Trio Mediaeval and Bang on a Can, in a dramatized stage production that brought in the talents of 4 playwrights as well as six performers of the SITI Company.
Storytelling with music, movement, and dialogue
Some friends know my easy obsession with minimalist music, so needless to say I enjoyed the rhythmic, repetitive score. The lyrics to the songs were printed in the program, but one really didn’t need them for half the songs, since they were comprised of just a handful of words each. The first song, “Some Say” is just five words in various repetitions and harmonies. Ashley Bathgate’s cello part sounded to me so much like a flute, that I was looking for that instrumentalist on stage. I was engaged by the work thoroughly, but I was also engaged when I watched the four and a half hour Einstein on the Beach and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s company performing Steve Reich’s “Pendulum Music.” As usual, minimalism is not for everyone. However, it paired well with many elements of the production: the thematic repetitive swings of John Henry’s steel-driving hammer, the stepping and hamboning movements intermixed with spoken text and music, a retrograde and repeat phrase depicting a line of workers carving out a path for the railway, and the persistent and continuous drive of ambition.
Steel Hammer was unique in the way that it presented information about the legend of John Henry to us in the audience, uncovering a more historically-accurate account of the real-life John Henry. It was not simply an interpretation of the legendary story–Anne Bogart chose to have the actors on stage perform scenes at one moment, and direct their conversation to the audience in the next moment to explain how contradictory tales may have come about. Eric Berryman embodies John Henry and many other uncelebrated men like him whose labor built our country. In one section, the cast moves us from this tale that was born in the 1870s to current times, presenting the way “John Henrys” have been treated through history since post civil war reconstruction. They deftly compare, for example, forced labor in the post civil war period to our current racially-targeted war on drugs which keeps black men incarcerated and deprived of their freedom.
But we are cautioned humorously by the actors at the beginning of the performance that the work is about the legend of this man and how the legend came to be, even when there are different topics to contemplate. This production weaves together Wolfe’s music, physical action, and work of the four playwrights to allow to us to decide for ourselves how to connect or know this John Henry better. Award-winning director Anne Bogart writes in her program notes: “Why do we tell stories? . . . How do stories travel through time? . . . What is the function of stories in society? . . . For thousands of years humans have stood in front of one another to tell stories. This impulse to use spoken narrative to explain and shape our life experiences lies at the heart of Steel Hammer.”
These words are compelling to me in my field of archives. History tells us stories, and we understand an event more fully when an event is accounted for by a diverse spectrum of individuals. Understanding our past through personalities and characters invite us to interact with history in a conversational style. Oral histories and narratives present history–life–from a personal perspective, as if they are speaking directly to us. It’s not enough to read information and facts of history. We respond to humanity.
This work is sophisticated and innovative, yet it can allow different connections and meanings to a varied audience. After the performance, I had a great conversation with my friend and heard how she enjoyed the performance. We were able to continue our dialogue and contemplate the significance of this tale, or how important any of the individual elements were, and appreciate that they also survived in our memory through history. This is the deeper connection I enjoy when leaving the theater. I left Royce Hall that night, but that experience still stays with me, and I am so grateful for the enormous talents of all the individuals who made that work possible.