The Vineyard Playhouse’s month-long African-American Festival of Theater and Music kicked off this week with an original one-woman show, “Root,” which is described by its creator Vanessa German as a spoken word opera. The show, which incorporates poetry, music, dance, and video to impart a message of hope to a journey through recent history, will run through Saturday, Aug. 13.
Next Monday through Wednesday, Aug. 15 through 17, audiences will be treated to another one-person multi-layered show as popular jazz musician Stan Strickland performs “Coming Up for Air: An AutoJazzography.”
The festival will pick up again the following week, when a one-night treat, a performance by Opera Noire of New York City at the Union Chapel, will be sandwiched between a short run of “5 Mojo Secrets” on Aug. 24-27.
Opera Noire, a company made up of professional African-American singers, who have as individual performers variously entertained audiences from Milan’s La Scala to New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, will be returning to the Vineyard after participating in the Playhouse’s festival last year.
The festival opened Wednesday night, Aug. 10, with the multi-media performance piece “Root,” written and performed by poet, performer, and sculptor Ms. German. It continues through Aug. 13.
The work was created as a commission for the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture in Pittsburgh and was presented last summer at The Vineyard Playhouse as a reading. Ms. German worked with veteran theater director Heather Arnet to incorporate some of the former’s poems and other elements into a theatrical piece.
Says Ms. Arnet, “It takes the audience on a journey that travels through Martin Luther King’s Mississippi to modern day Juarez [Mexico] and post-Katrina Louisiana. She’s [Ms. German] really exploring how different people use jazz, dance, music. What it is they do to stay alive and keep going and keep hopeful to live through extreme times of violence.” The show incorporates music by Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, and others and uses video to create backdrops. “There are moments of great humor,” says Ms. Arnet. “It’s quite diverse as a piece.”
“I think about it as the melding of all the different dramatic components of opera,” Ms. German says. “The beautiful epic sense of opera. Place is viewed in different dimensions. It could be a spiritual place, a place within a memory, a place within the soul. It’s telling a story in the rhythm of words and the musicality of the spoken word.”
Ms. German grew up in an atmosphere of violence in central Los Angeles and lives today in a violent section of Pittsburgh but she doesn’t view violence or tragedy — the framework of her piece — in an entirely negative light. She calls “Root,” “a piece about reckoning and redemption.”
“You can create a root of herbs as a poultice,” says Ms. German. “You can create a root of healing, words that can heal. That’s part of what I believe about words.”
Following on the heels of “Root,” Stan Strickland will return to the Vineyard with a show that he originally workshopped at The Vineyard Playhouse in 2005 and later performed at The Yard and many other venues.
“Coming up for Air” was conceived by Mr. Strickland and written and originally directed by the late Jon Lipsky.
In the piece, which combines music, dance, and acting, Mr. Strickland plays eight instruments and creates more than a dozen characters, including family members, friends, and musical heroes. In the course of the play, he explores many musical forms and dance movements searching for the sources of his music and telling of a near-death, life-affirming experience.
Mr. Strickland has earned a following in Boston and beyond as a jazz musician and saxophonist. His career has taken him to various parts of the world at major venues including Symphony Hall in Boston, Carnegie Recital Hall and Town Hall in New York, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He has appeared in recordings and on stage with many of the greats of jazz. Mr. Strickland is also an accomplished dancer, choreographer, and actor who has appeared in movies and on TV.
Mr. Lipsky, who died this past March, was an award-winning playwright and director who was a central player in the Boston theater world. He was associate artistic director of The Vineyard Playhouse and many of his works have been presented there over the years. In 2007 Mr. Lipsky won a 2007 Elliot Norton Award for directing “Coming Up for Air” in Boston.
The successful performance by Opera Noire will also be reprised this year for the Playhouse’s second Festival of African-American Theater and Dance. This year, according to the organization’s co-founder and general manager Robert Mack, the two genres will be combined in a single performance by seven of the company’s singers and will include more staging and other dramatic elements.
“Root,” Aug. 11–13, 8 pm, The Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. $35.
“Coming Up for Air: An AutoJazzography,” Aug. 15–17, 7 pm, The Vineyard Playhouse.
Film: “The Inkwell,” Aug. 20, 8 pm, The Vineyard Playhouse.
“5 Mojo Secrets,” Aug. 24–27, The Vineyard Playhouse.
Opera Noire, Aug. 25, 7 pm, Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs.
“Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking,” Aug. 31–Sept. 3.
For more information, visit vineyardplayhouse.org.