From the blue notes in the overture to the spiritual at the finale, this new opera acknowledges centuries of African-American cultural tradition as it presents a capsule biography of Sojourner Truth, abolitionist and activist for women’s rights. Born a slave in the Hudson Valley at the end of the 18th century, this remarkable woman suffered a novel’s worth of cruelties and indignities before escaping to freedom just before New York State finally outlawed slavery in 1827. Isabella Baumfree went on to a legendary career as Sojourner Truth, activist and speechmaker. She bore five children, travelled through much of the country, worked with or inspired notables from Frederick Douglass to Susan B. Anthony, and saw most of the 19th century before she died in 1883.
With music by Paula M. Kimper and libretto by Talaya Delaney, Truth is musically appealing, with a smart balance of melodic friendliness and rhythmic complexity. While the libretto narrates more than it dramatizes, Kimper, who also conducts the small onstage ensemble, has set the words congruently into flowing tunes for maximum understandability. And the composer is a master of delicate interplay among musical voices and timbres, both instrumental and vocal.
The greatest joy of this production comes from the performances, led by the charismatic and fluid-voiced soprano Mari-Yan Pringle, who endows Truth with an earthy spiritedness that comes through even though she hardly changes costume through the decades of Truth’s life and hasn’t got much physical acting to do either. Soprano Heather Michele Meyer provides nice support in several small roles; tenor Stephen Biegner displays a strong and shining tone despite being stuck with some of the most expository lines as fellow traveler William Lloyd Garrison; and baritone Jorell Williams is an imposing Frederick Douglass, especially when debating abolitionist strategy with Truth. Finally, boy soprano Jaylen Fontaine is magnetically adorable as Truth’s son Peter, whom she had to leave behind when she achieved her freedom and who, in this telling, reappears as a kind of spirit guide later in her life.
As much as Truth works as a musical experience and a showcase for fine voices, it falters as drama. Clocking in under an hour and a half, story-wise it’s little more than a kind of Cliff’s Notes version of the life of this American legend, whose saga would merit a much more extensive and dramatic treatment. It feels rather like a sketch for a longer, more substantial opera – one that would deserve a much bigger stage, with sets, a chorus, serious dramatizations of some of the twists and turns and great moments, and a pit for a much more sizable orchestra, one that would be more polished than the present production’s small ensemble with its individually skilled but not thoroughly integrated players.
Having said all that, I must point out that this is one of more than 200 shows in this year’s New York Fringe. In that setting, Truth is a substantial work, and while I can wish for more, I couldn’t wish for much better out of the material at hand, and I do not hesitate at all to recommend it to one and all, for its music and its voices as well as for its reminder of a great American whom most of us today remember, if at all, as little more than a name in our history. Truth has several more performances through Aug. 25 at Theatre 80 (80 St. Marks Place). Visit the Fringe website for details, then go see it.