“Home after 30 years – to Virginia, now free.”
After escaping slavery and avoiding the clutches of the Fugitive Slave Act for three decades, James L. Smith, now officially emancipated along with the millions of African Americans in the now re-United States, visited his former Virginia home and ate a pleasant meal with his former owner. He’d been surprised to find her working in the garden in the hot sun with her own white hands.
That’s the image I was left with at the end of Salon/Sanctuary’s smartly constructed and affecting presentation of “Exodus: Dreams of the Promised Land in Antebellum America.” A combined concert and reading presentation, the show alternates folk-hymns, spirituals and Shaker songs, sung by acclaimed a capella sextet the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, with readings from slave narratives and the writings of abolitionists by three intensely focused actors.
Jennifer Rau, Broadway veteran Rosalyn Coleman Williams (The Mountaintop, The Piano Lesson), and House of Cards‘ Reg E. Cathey read from scripts and started a bit hesitantly, but as the show went on and especially in the second half they exploded, Mr. Cathey especially, into fiery embodiments of the various historical personages they were channeling, including Frederick Douglass; abolitionist Angelina Grimké; Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who became Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and confidante; the abovementioned James L. Smith; and, not least, Solomon Northup, whose wrenching story has just been drilled deep into pop-culture’s psyche by the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. These readings built to some crescendos worthy of a Broadway stage.
Known for its eclectic repertoire, the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble lived up to its longstanding reputation with a variety of songs beautifully arranged and sung. These ranged from the mournful “Sorrow’s Tear,” which opened and closed with a lovely soprano solo, to the funny, archly performed “Complainer,” and from William Billings’s ambitious extended narrative “I Am Come Unto My Garden” to “Kadesh Ur’chatz” (“Sanctify and Wash the Hands”), a Babylonian/Sephardic Passover chant.
The Passover, of course, commemorates the ancient Hebrews’ deliverance from slavery, and Erica Gould and Jessica Gould’s program weaves the parallel stories smartly together. Rev. Elkanah Kelsey Dare’s shape-note hymn “Babylonian Captivity,” dating from the early 1800s, made the same connection earlier in the program.
Western Wind’s arrangements include unison singing, as in “The Happy Journey”; music that suggests solemn medieval chant (“Evening Hymn”); melody with drone (“The Bower of Prayer”); glorious devotional hymns (“Fiducia”); familiar tunes dressed in rich, powerful harmonies (“Go Down Moses”); and inspirational Civil War military music (“The Marching Song of the First Arkansas,” a version of “Glory Hallelujah” presented here as almost a production number.
The concert was held one floor up from where George Washington said his official farewell to his troops in 1783. Fraunces Tavern is Manhattan’s oldest surviving building, now a museum and restaurant. The museum is well worth a visit even without an event, but the Western Wind and the powerful readings made it an extra special occasion to plunge into the deep history of New York City – and of the whole United States, for good and ill.