There are so many life-affirming moments in the exuberant production of “I, Too, Sing America,” produced by San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, it’s hard not to walk out of Brava Theater and feel as if you just went to church.
The power of the show lies in its defiance through beauty, a resilience that is captured through every trill of a perfectly-breathed sharp or flat, every joyous song that explodes, and every piece of movement that is rooted in truth.
What might that truth be? It’s an easy question with a very nuanced answer. The piece has no discernible narrative, just a collection of songs that bring forth a powerful heaviness and a fluttering airiness that wraps the audience in a blanket and squeezes with love for dear life.
This is a beautiful crafting of a piece from music director and the show’s co-creator Othello Jefferson, along with snazzy and poignant choreography by Christine Chung. The sharp direction is handled by co-creator Jamie Yuen-Shore.
Popular entertainment has a checkered past when it comes to portraying the bodies of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). So often, those portrayals were not built from truth, told by those who only saw and did not feel. A white writer penning for Black skin has deep roots in harm in this nation – nuance that was never going to inform the portrayal.
Ay, there’s the rub. What now gathers in the rich and vast theatre space is a group of young artists, an inventive and talented collective that decides to tell their stories through their talents, linking them to the greatest poetry in the nation’s history. The ones they share through the mediums of song and dance are ones THEY choose to tell. So often, the BIPOC story begins within some type of trauma porn – what did these people need to overcome in order to find true happiness?
Maybe, nothing. Maybe they have been happy and joyful their entire lives. Is that a crazy thought? “I, Too, Sing America” chooses to display the love of art and the love of country in a very specific way. There’s no doubt that BIPOC folks are having a hell of a time today for a host of reasons. And there are days when that story is appropriate. But this is not that time.
One example – In Gwendolyn Brooks’ iconic poem “We Real Cool,” most translations have to do with how awful these kids are – they cut school, drink and stay out past curfew. Yet in the hands of the ensemble, the poem that discusses some tough kids gets another coat of paint here, the downtrodden boys fully engaging in a fantastic, up tempo version of the poem.
The show’s tight 90 minutes is a passion cup overflowing with varying degrees of balance. Within the freshness of the tunes is the fantastic commentary, whether it is their own or from luminaries such as James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, who remind those in the audience who this country belongs to and who this country is for. Being young, being Black, is a gift – an absolute, luscious gift.
There’s also the gift of talent. Leading the way are Rodney Jackson, Jr., Marcus J. Paige, Naté the Soulsanger, Jocelyn Thompson-Jordan, Anthone Jackson and Zuri “Iruz” Montgomery, just a smattering of voices that lead with their talent through transcendence.
These remembrances from those who fought, bled and died for the freedoms we are blessed and graced to have serve as reminders of the wide range of the BIPOC experience. The show is not a celebration of the narrative that others have chosen to craft, often without permission and with impunity.
That experience comes with reaffirming the most beautiful aspects of our collective pride. So often the framing of the nation is about those who wrote the documents and filled the buildings, but not nearly enough attention is paid to those who physically built those buildings. It is within the restorative power of a perfectly placed note where the brilliance of the show lies.
When the narrative that now takes hold by this group of artists, we get emotional delicacies such as “In my daddy’s arms, I am dark and strong like him” in the form of a four-part harmony. And when the world is crazy, “I am big and strong.” Today might be a tough one, a reminder of what might not be accessible, but in the words of the immortal Langston Hughes, “tomorrow, I’ll be at the table” because “I, too, am America.”
While there is frustration that this even needs to be a discussion as we continue to see BIPOC people fight for equality daily, “I, Too, Sing America” is a defiant reminder of all that BIPOC artists have contributed to this nation.
There are colors and textures that make people brim with ebullience and pride. To behold this joyous collection of diverse artists is to reaffirm the hopes of humanity. In our darkest days, there are those people who hold a light and lead us out of the tunnel. This ensemble are those people.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company presents, “I, Too, Sing America”
Created by Othello Jefferson and Jamie Yuen-Shore
Concept and music by Othello Jefferson
Directed by Jamie Yuen-Shore
The Word: Through trying times, there is such restoration in watching a group of BIPOC artists create scintillating art. Run, don’t walk, to see this show.
Through Feb. 13
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
2781 24th Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $15 – $40
For tickets, call (415) 484-8566 or visit www.sfbatco.org