American Theatre magazine, March 2000
"We have arrived at a critical moment in staging and musical direction," announces an emphatic Rosalba Rolón. "With much of our script now in near-final form, conflict over the writing, if not resolved, has been put to the side." Scattered around a threadbare rehearsal room in New Orleans, the company of Promise of a Love Song, a production of the five-year-old Exchange Project, listens intently. With scarcely two weeks before the play's preview, the director and dramaturg's words are both warning and entreaty. Not one person in the room fails to grasp the urgency of her address, or the joy in it. "We've made it this far," Rolón concludes with a broad smile, "and we're pleased to no end."
Welcome to the delirious playhouse of collaboration. The script in question has been fashioned collaboratively by three professional popular-theatre ensembles that may otherwise never have found reason to argue — Junebug Productions, an African-American company from New Orleans; Pregones Theater, a mostly Puerto Rican troupe (of which Rolón is artistic director) based in the South Bronx; and Roadside Theater, from the central Appalachian coalfields of eastern Kentucky.
Three wildly divergent stories, one from each troupe — all concerning that most provocative seismograph of cultural oscillation, love — have been elicited as the raw material for this unique work-in-progress. As it tracks the turbulent relationship of a Southern black revolutionary and the woman lawyer who stands by him, Junebug's segment reexamines the legacy of the civil rights struggles of the '60s; sifting through a Latina woman's memories of her adored but distant father, Pregones's episode explores the challenges of immigrant assimilation; as it depicts the poignant bond between a Kentucky woman and her lone son, Roadside's contribution conveys the effects of isolation and poverty on family dynamics. It's an unruly aggregate of personal dramas and cultural issues — can they be corralled and contained in a satisfying, coherent play? That's the bottom-line question Rolón and her company faces. In two weeks they'll have an answer.
Commissioned by a consortium of universities and presenting organizations, the Exchange Project kicked off in 1995 with Junebug, Roadside and Pregones traveling in a round-robin fashion to introduce themselves and their repertoires to each other's radically divergent worlds. The artists met with each other and with members of their respective communities in workshops, story circles and music jam sessions. They performed for one another at local arts centers and schools. They talked informally with audiences. Whether in Louisiana, New York City or the Kentucky coalfields, the itinerant troupes were treated to a healthy dose of regional home cooking — and generous servings of the equally flavorful stories that are best told around the table.
The excitement of the Exchange Project's initial two-year reciprocal touring phase generated the idea, in 1997, of a joint production. The artists bandied about various ideas of what their play could be: folk-music revue, history lesson, multicultural cabaret. One theme, said to have come to Rolón in a dream, won everyone over: love stories. The pairing of love and music, it was agreed, would capture the project's aspirations — to immerse artists and audiences alike in a triple-barreled mix of cultures and styles, while exploring the ties that bind and the differences that divide.
To tackle the nitty-gritty of production, an independent executive producer, Austin, Tex.-based theatre artist, educator and producer Theresa Holden, was brought on board. "One thing that distinguishes this project," explains Holden, who heads the aptly named national service organization Artists and Community Connections, "is that three companies accustomed to producing their own material entrusted a fourth party to mediate their collaboration."
Now, after months of sometimes contentious back and forth, Rolón's rehearsal-room speech brings the writing phase to a close, and the Exchange Project partners get ready for a first performance. For the next two weeks, the performers will map and re-map stage areas, solidify choreography and gestural vocabulary, and rehearse songs, trailing their own complicated rhythms. They know each other well enough to expect new arguments to surface in the process. "Collaborative exchange is a difficult thing to do," says writer, musician and actor Ron Short, a veteran member of Roadside. "We're not always willing to give up what we have, what we know well, on behalf of what's to come."
Rehearsals are housed at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, which operates out of one of the few functional storefronts in the once-vibrant shopping district for the New Orleans African-American community. Trumped by the allure of Canal Street brand-name commerce, the boarded-up strip is now quiet and somewhat forbidding. Part of the Ashé organization's plan is to bring the noise of community back home to the neighborhood. ("Ashé," pronounced ah-SHAY, is Swahili for "Amen," and designates the ability to make things happen.) According to the center's founder-directors Douglas Redd and Carol Bebelle, "Ashé combines the intentions of community development and economic development with the creative forces of culture and art to revive and reclaim a historically significant corridor of Central City."
Indeed, the Exchange Project is a good match for the Ashé spirit. One thing the three companies share, with each other and with the Ashé community, is a history of economic hardship. Government reports for the past 30 years confirm that the South Bronx, Appalachia and Louisiana are regions at the bottom of the economic barrel. As equally poor cousins, it seemed only natural to the participants that they get to know each other better.
"It sounds obvious, in a way," ventures Soldanela Rivera, actor and member of Pregones, "yet this is the most challenging project I've been involved in. There are reasons for these three companies to work together, but who would have anticipated the level of artistic conflict? It's made me stronger — the daily negotiations, witnessing the ongoing debates over the writing, the ethical dilemmas, the community component."
That component is an essential ingredient of the Exchange Project's five-week residency, culminating in December performances at the Contemporary Arts Center, a rambling, red-brick multi-arts warehouse space in the gallery-dotted Arts District of New Orleans. The St. Thomas Irish Channel Consortium (STICC), which represents a large, progressive cross-section of the city of New Orleans, including lower-income neighborhoods adjacent to downtown and the Arts District, takes on the role of convener, bringing in community groups to join the artists in informal gatherings, workshops and open rehearsals. Similar community exchanges are scheduled for the production's national tour, planned for late this year through 2002.
"When the Exchange Project landed in New Orleans, we immediately thought to make the community a part of our cross-cultural dialogue," explains MK Wegmann, community liaison for the project. "We community people feel ownership over this play," adds STICC board member Angela Winfrey, "because we're part of the process and it raises difficult issues of multiculturalism that are important to us." Notably, it is the tensions inherent in the play's provocative title subject — love — that appear to fascinate the project's supporters as well as its participants.
Might it be possible to shape the radically different love stories that the three troupes have to tell into a singular narrative? "The Big Story," "the fourth place," "the common ground" — these are all names given to that most elusive possibility. But the idea is reluctantly dismissed when it becomes clear that one narrative line will never be able to accommodate the three dramatic episodes that are the play's components.
To tell the truth, there is a second script at hand at all times, a Plan B of sorts that the company has in reserve as an "open in case of emergency" device. The alternate script calls for a theatre cabaret setting in which each company tells its own story, in toto, without the formal interconnections now being negotiated for the work-in-progress. It's a sure-footed solution, not at odds with current notions of diversity, and thus a reliable security. But wanting to press on to new ground, the partners are after something other than a celebration of difference. So, with the assistance of musical director Ricardo Pons, Rolón deftly collates the three love stories and adds detailed staging notations. Promise of a Love Song is refashioned as musical theatre.
Freelance director Steven Kent, a frequent Junebug collaborator, will be co-directing the production from Rolón's notations. Her plan calls for the three companies to share the stage, each telling its story one bit at a time, each story gently tangling up with its neighbors'. The work riffs on the deceptively simple geometry of the triangle — at any one time there are three competing voices on stage. Kent's task is a difficult one: to enable them ultimately to harmonize. Adding to the challenge, Kent faces a fundamental rub between his director's authority and ensemble process.
As Jorge Merced, actor and associate director of Pregones, puts it, "Our work, and I think it could also be said of Roadside, is founded on popular-theatre and collective process. For us, a director is one who organizes the ensemble's ideas. We did not want to be led by the hand, in silence." But when the first staging confrontation surfaces, regarding interpretation, it becomes clear that there are no hardened animosities between the parties. "We have to remember," says Junebug actor and artistic director John O'Neal, "that all readings of the script cannot be honored. It's not an issue of supremacy, but of trusting the choices of the team in charge. We elected them. If Steve and Rosalba will conduct us as an orchestra, let us submit to their process. Let us honor our differences in the context of respect and hear out their vision."
Kent strikes a deal of sorts with Rolón. Together, they take turns staging the piece and coaching the actors. Kent is both surprised and pleased with the outcome. "Who would have known?" he wonders with characteristic good humor. "We're joined at the hip now and make a great team. This particular collaboration is as strange as they come. Each group thinks highly of its own contribution to the project and is alternately repulsed and enthralled by the rest."
Staged in the midst of this love-hate scenario, Promise of a Love Song is a paean to the challenges inherent in cross-cultural exchange. When the much-anticipated preview date rolls around, the 150-seat CAC auditorium is readied for the show. Kent admits feeling nervous. Rolón says she's terribly excited, anticipating both the actors' latest take on the script and the crowd's response to it.
In fact, awareness of the audience-performer relationship has permeated all phases of the Exchange Project. "In the popular-theatre tradition," says Roadside artistic director Dudley Cocke, "the audience is part of the show. Who's in the house has a lot to do with what happens in the auditorium."
On this night, a multi-generational, majority African-American audience, including many members of STICC-affiliate community organizations, is greeted by the production's six-piece band, visible upstage. The space has been stripped of its usual studied formality; a partly exposed brick wall provides a striking backdrop to the band's rolling jazz phrases. Three rectangular scrims of different sizes hang from the ceiling, on which silhouettes can be cast, adding a ghostly layer to the drama. The room fills to near capacity, and loud applause signals surprise when the cast bounds onto the stage from behind the audience. An expectant silence.
The story lines may be teased apart, but the most telling aspect ofPromise of a Love Song is how its three stories resonate together. Unfolding in close proximity, one bit at a time, the stories cannot help but talk to each other. As one scene segues into the next, the singularity of each experience becomes all the more compelling because of how it connects with, or resists, another. A riddle can be read in these languid, delicious affirmations of culture and identity. It goes something like this: When does a culture's legitimate inward focus become isolationism?
In Junebug's segment, "Star-Crossed Lovers," Donna, a young graduate of Yale Law School's class of 1968, is assigned to defend Nelson, an impassioned revolutionary orator jailed in Louisiana's notorious Angola Prison for his civil rights activities. Donna succeeds in getting Nelson free; they fall in love and commit to each other. He is again imprisoned, and Donna is left to raise their son, Donald, on her own. When Nelson is finally freed, the couple resumes the struggle for black liberation. But much to his father's dismay, Donald grows up not to be a politician but a musician; when he announces his upcoming marriage to a Puerto Rican woman, he meets with his mother's rejection as well. Upon the son's departure, Donna and Nelson are left to face the changing times and high cost of their carefully guarded political convictions.
In Pregones's "Silent Dancing," based on a story by Judith Ortiz Cofer, letters tied with a red ribbon bring back memories of childhood to a Puerto Rican woman named Angela. Having arrived in Manhattan in the 1960s with her family, Angela imagines revisiting El Barrio, the neighborhood that provided comfort to her and her mother — but memories of her inscrutable father leave her troubled. Father and daughter relive their relationship in a choreography that doesn't allow them to come together. As if still at the very threshold of immigrant life, she recalls his ambiguous struggle to assimilate, in conflict with his inflexible will to "keep ourselves to ourselves."
Roadside's "Charming Billy" examines the loving relationship between a mother and son in today's Appalachia. The old woman — opening the performance with a haunting version of "Greenwood Sidee'o"— has dedicated her life to raising eight children and working the land. Friends and loved ones have all moved away or died, except for her son Billy, whose health problems ("they found a black streak in his brain") keep him close to home and estranged from his rural community. Billy plays his banjo and dreams of a girl; Mother dances and works. Together they make a life, as if in spite of the world. "This'n and that'n," Billy says of himself and his maternal companion, "that's all they is."
Promise of a Love Song relies on original music to bring into focus and further dramatize its conundrum. Starting with the overture, an intertwining series of musical phrases score the (quite literal) confluence of African-American, Latino and Appalachian themes. This musical counterpoint deftly captures the project's blend of companies, styles and stories. "A score fashioned out of disparate styles was not going to be easy," notes Pregones's pianist and composer Desmar Guevara. "There were three distinct musical worlds we had to honor, without making a blunder."
Adds musical director Ricardo Pons, also a member of Pregones, "The level and variety of musical execution are exceptional. There's an overview of African-American musical culture — jazz, Motown, pop and blues. We visit the range of musical languages for each culture. Each has its fire, its magic. Pregones will play bolero, salsa and plena. Roadside features the banjo, from jig to lullaby, plus Ron's rural ballads, mountain fiddle and Irish hand drum. I have used this wealth of sounds to create images by way of contrast — using one culture's music to introduce another's scene, for example. Collaboration is this kind of intimate sharing."
By year's end, the Exchange Project's three major co-commissioners — the University of Nebraska and the Wagon Train Project of Lincoln, Neb., the Flynn Theater for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vt., and the Columbia Festival for the Arts in Columbia, Md.— will each have hosted Promise of a Love Song, as will have the artists' home communities in the Bronx and Whitesburg, Ky.
"Because of distant home bases, each meeting, each rehearsal and each performance of the Exchange Project means extensive travel and accommodations," explains producer Holden. "An enterprise of this scope and longevity requires creative and adventurous funding partnerships." The National Endowment for the Arts, the James S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the American Festival Project the National Performance Network and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Arts Partners Project are among the project's underwriters.
The correspondence between music and the riddle of culture is one of the most productive conceits of the Exchange Project, and the production's musical vernacular is designed to reach a broad audience of both regular and first-time theatregoers. One of the songs goes, "If you were me / And I was you / Would I be black / Would you be blue / To see what life / Put me through?" When the New Orleans audience gave a standing ovation to Promise of a Love Song, it was this possibility of understanding that they honored.
In the follow-up discussion, the juxtaposition of three different styles of narration and music earns high marks. Best of all, members of the audience had their own stories to share. When Nelson of "Star-Crossed Lovers" recounted an anecdote about an elephant at the circus, one woman recalled her grandfather. "He was a runaway slave," she explained, "and the monologue brings his voice back to me." Like her, other people stood up to testify to the play's impact.
"It's all about perspective, now, isn't it," concludes Roadside actor Kim Neal. "As my character in the play says, 'There's something to be said about looking at this as a whole thing.' What's real to you is real to you. People understand things in many different ways, and that's the nature of this work. If each of us artists plays our part well, then it can lead to a wonderful show, and wonderful stories that come afterwards. To me, that is success, when audience members start telling you their stories after the performance — not what a great actor or singer or musician you are, but things that show they have really taken it to a deep place.
"For me," Neal reasons, "that's the measure of good work — how much people take it to heart and build on it in their own words, in their own relationships."