In 1939 Paul Robeson recorded a stirring and controversial oratorio, Ballad for Americans, that dealt with the subject of racial tolerance and became an anthem for many dissatisfied Americans.
Now, nearly six decades later, American Music Theater Festival (AMTF) in Philadelphia is using that same oratorio -- written by John Latouche and Earl Robinson -- as a springboard for Ballad for Americans: Stand in the Light, a new work conceived and created by local artists and middle-school students.
The production is in large part the idea of Ben Levit, artistic director of AMTF, who thought it would be interesting for a group of students from various schools to listen to the 1939 Robeson recording.
The student's response to the oratorio was overwhelming -- and included letters, poems, and rap songs. One student even imagined herself as the first female American President and wrote her own inaugural address.
Thus was born the concept for Ballad for Americans: Stand in the Light. The first half of the production is given over to a performance of the 1939 oratorio, with bass Aaron Gooding and a choir and orchestra of 200 musicians from area schools. The second half of the show interweaves the writings and musings of the school children -- who are themselves the performers -- to create a nineties version of the oratorio. It is at times grim (one boy relates his family's move from the "war zone of Laos" to the "war zone of inner-city drugs") but has an overall message of hope, according to Gary D. Bramnick, marketing director of AMTF.
Upcoming productions at AMTF include Thinning of the Veil, a performance piece by virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier and choreographer Rebecca Stenn, Nov. 7 and 8; Essentially Ellington: A Tribute to the Duke, Dec. 4-14; Band in Berlin, the story of the Comedian Harmonists and their rise to fame in 1920s Germany , Mar. 11-22 (note: this is not to be confused with Harmony, Barry Manilow's new musical about the very same vocal sextet); Beowulf, with Benjamin Bagby, Mar. 25-29; and the fifth annual Rainbow Connection Festival, Mar. 30-Apr. 5.
Ballad for Americans: Stand in the Light is being performed Nov. 1 at 3 and 7 PM, and Nov. 2 at 3 PM at WHYY Forum Thater, 150 N. 6th St., Philadelphia. For information and tickets, call (215) 893-1570.
-- By Rebecca Paller