There is a beautiful little show, A Band of Angels, being presented by New York City Children’s Theater Company at Theater 3 (home of the Mint Theater Company). Like all good children’s theatre, it is not really for children. It is for children and adults to enjoy together.
This is the story of Ella (Cynthia Nesbit), a privileged young black woman who is tossing her private school education down the toilet because she is planning on being the next Beyoncé. Who needs an education when fame and fortune are parked outside your door waiting for you to come of age? Her Aunt Beth, unable to knock some sense into her niece, understands that a higher power is called for and pulls in the ancestors: Bryson Bruce, La’Nette Wallace and Sekou S. Luke who play a myriad of ancestors, and Sam Ray rounds out the cast. A veritable chorus of grand proportions.
In the tradition of the best children’s theatre, everything is done onstage – costumes are changed, sounds of rain are beaded gourds and wash boards. Why use a piano when you have singers who can hit every note you need? Why have portraits hanging on a wall when you have actors who can embody a portrait and bring it to life at the same time.
Aunt Beth and the ancestors know that a little time travel will do more to get Ella’s attention than any words. Ella needs the experience that the ancestors offer. They sing (and what a pleasure to hear these voices) Sankofa (from Akan language of Ghana that translates as “reach back and get it”) All that is forgotten… must be remembered… to move forward. Of course this does not appeal to Ella one teensie bit, but there is nothing she can do to stop it.
She is transported through the years of slavery and ends up in 1870 at the Fisk School in Nashville, Tennessee. She greeted by her actual ancestor Ella Sheppard Moore (Ms. Gray) who was in fact an important member of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Present and past Ella change places. It is our Ella who shows up on campus with $6 and is swept into the community, provided she does not mind working in order to pay for her education. A JOB??? Ella wails. When it turns out to be a job playing the piano and conducting the Colored Christian Choir, Ella finds that she excels. We are treated to song after song that blend into the story so smoothly you almost don’t notice the addition of music.
Soon it becomes necessary to take the choir on tour in order to raise funds to save Fisk. The Jubilee’s tour was not without its struggles, and we watch as they are turned away from a Boston hotel at which White had made a reservation. This was not uncommon. They spent many a night in railroad stations, or in “Colored only” establishments – both north and south. They were good enough to entertain white folks, but not worth of a reciprocal gesture of care.
When the idea of singing what we know today as spirituals is raised, the choir pushes back. They tell their founder, George White, that these are sacred songs. They are not meant to be shared in public. These are songs of remembrance – we hear Thomas (Mr. Bruce) tell the tale of his only memory of his mother, which was the day she was sold – while in the background we hear Motherless Child. It is a stunning moment. Eventually, however, the name of the choir changes to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and, through the action of Ella, the singers present their sacred music – an astonishing rendition of Lord, Guide My Feet – and we hear it in that context. You can feel the world shifting on its axis.
Ella of the present feels the change down to her toes, and when she returns to our world she is on fire with hope and dreams and demands on herself. This of course overflows, as it should. Ella fixes her gaze on us as if seeing us for the first time. What about YOU?? What are you going to do with your life? She asks. And from the reaction of the audience, adults and children together, the question hits home.
Treat yourself to this production. Rent a kid if it will make you feel better.
WITH: Bryson Bruce, Sekou S. Luke, Cynthis Nesbit, Sam Ray and La’Nette Wallace
Set by Blair Mielnik; Costumes by Leslie Bernstein; Lights by Jit Senevitatne
New York City Children’s Theater, at Theater 3, 311 W. 43rd Street. May 2 and 3, May 9 and 10 at 2PM and 4PM. Tickets 646-250-2278, nychildrenstheater.org