Othello Jefferson Sets Great Poems to Superb Song & Dance
by Robert M. Gardner
Hearing the powerful words of Folami Abiade’s “In Daddy’s Arms” coupled with the beautiful interpretative dance of Jaavon Martin left me breathless. Daddies are not the usual subject of songs but this ode to fatherhood leaves our hearts yearning for a father’s touch.
In Bay Area Theater Company’s award winning “I, Too, Sing America,” we are frequently touched by the brilliant mixing of African American poetry, music, and dance. We hear the words of Langston Hughes great poem “I, Too, Sing America” blended with music and song by inspired Musical Director Othello Jefferson, who came up with the concept.
Many artists of color sing, dance, and re-invent the works of Hughes, Jean Toomer, Frances Chung, Gwendolyn Brook, Alice Walker, and more. Jefferson’s unique “I, Too, America” brings the words of legendary black and brown artists to life. Jefferson uses their poems and songs as a springboard into his own inspired musical compositions.
Under the masterful direction of Choreographer Christine Chung both solo and group dances mesh seamlessly with the songs being performed. The complexity, the expressiveness and the exuberance of this highly talented cast keeps us on the edge of our seats. Repeatedly, the dancers’ beautiful movements intensify songs and words—bringing forth aching emotions.
Many moments induce thoughtfulness. Cortney Lamar Charleston’s “I’m Rooting for Everybody Black” laments and applauds the lives of People of Color. The poem/song evokes the real lives of people of color, bringing hope for a better future.
The company is wonderful in its diversity. Actors range from dark black to soft brown, their bodies thick and thin, and from tall to short. Clearly, they are chosen for their skill, rather than conformity to an artificial Rockettes or Disney standard of beauty. We concentrate on their elegance of movement, the clarity of their songs, and the passion of their expression
All are dressed in shades of soft colors—blues, browns and whites—walking barefoot. We can imagine that their clothes come from their own closets. They represent types of Everyman in simple dress and appearance, but their voice and dance show them to be extraordinary.
This highly talented group of young performers is destined for greatness. Listening to their complex harmonies is delightful. Watching them move effortlessly with moves both beautiful and athletic becomes a marvelous spectacle. Bold political statements resonate when actors step forward and intone our favorite writers. Jamie Yuen-Shore deserves high praise for her flawless direction.
The 300 seat, renovated Art Deco Brava Theater Center provides theater an ideal venue for the production. The four-piece band performs magic at the back of the expansive stage, with long white curtains as backdrop. The organ and drums are draped in white and set off the actors of color—deliberately and starkly.
Othello Jefferson commands the organ, backed by acoustic and electric guitarist Emmett Van Slyke. Slyke’s mastery of styles provides perfect accompaniment to the performers.
This musical is a marvel. Better travel swiftly to 24th Street in The Mission to catch “I, Too, Sing America” on the wing.
“I, Too, Sing America” –musical setting & concept by Othello Jefferson, directed by Jamie Yuen-Shore, choreography by Christine Chung, by BATCO, at Brava Theater Center, San Francisco, through Sunday, February 24, 2019. Info: sfbatco.org
Cast: Esther Ajayi, Marissa Bergmann, Nick Biddle, Malia Byrne, Daniel Cancel, Christine Chung, Niesha Colbert , Camille Colaco, Quinn Collaco, Mia Diawara, and Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr.