MARGARET GARNER, or A Negress Goes to the Opera for the First Time
So, quick, quick now, 'for I forget. For her birthday, your beloved Negress attended the very last Lincoln Center performance of MARGARET GARNER, the opera based on the historical inspiration of Toni Morrison's BELOVED. Fearful that she would be late and be forced to stand outside with the rest of the folk on CPTime, your Negress sprinted like Flo Jo from Harlem to Lincoln Center in record time. Sprinted, only to find that a sea of folk dressed in black and glittering jewels had the same thang in mind, and were basically milling around Broadway, lolligaggin' down the sidewalks, and basically NOT keepin' it movin', so... Your Negress sent a prayer up to Legba, who kindly opened the gate, but when she flew past the beautiful fountain and the tourists click-clickin' and tossing pennies in its depths, she stepped into the lobby of the New York State Theatre only to find that folk were STILL lined up, 5 minutes before curtain, to pick up their tickets.
And who, by the way, was also standing about, waving and greeting her entourage who, apparently, was also on CPTime? The incomparable Ms. Toni Morrison herself! Lookin' fabulous and surely feelin' fabulous, as writing the libretto to this powerful true tale was certainly no small feat. "Look, look, it's Toni," I cried, poking my gorgeous and adorable companion for the night--my ten year old daughter. The dear child thought I meant Tony Medina!
After climbing the carpeted steps up to take a quick peek at Kara Walker's exhibit, created, I think, in response to the opera, we joined an excited jumble of folk who tumbled into the elevator that whisked us up to our Fourth Tier seats. (Yo' beloved Negress wasn't TRYIN' to pay $130 for the orchestra joints). We stepped out into darkness, beyond plush maroons and bloodred velvet, through double doors that led to some kind of enormous tacky goldtone, snakeskin, python-covered balcony. But "Hey now!" Yo' Negress was delighted at her pretty good seats. Not as flyy as her AMAZING opening night seats at THE COLOR PURPLE premiere (thank ya, Alice & William!), but unlike the LION KING years ago, she would not spend the evening squinting behind a column....
So, how was it? Well, folk, I'ma say that I was thrilled when the black gorgeous curtain rose to reveal a larger than life set that was wonderful. Huge, white doric, plantation-style columns rose from the stage, from the floor to the ceiling, flanked by what only could be described as the larger than life faded, wooden slats of the slave quarters. Talk about setting the tone. A silent gathering of blackfolk filled the stage, some dressed in the humble, faded clothing of the bondspeople and others in black choir robes with brightly colored kente cloth. Being uninitiated in this art, yo' Negress was surprised to note the English subtitles hovering above the stage. "Ain't they singin' in English?" she asked no one in particular. Ahem. Needless to say, the subtitles were much appreciated as the evening progressed. Though the singing was good, at times it seemed that the show wasn't sure if it was an opera or a gospel. Some performers' voices hovered at an uncomfortable, no, intriguing space between the two forms. The two exceptions who never seemed unsure in their journey were the amazing folk who played "Cilla," Margaret Garner's "mother-in-law" (in quotes because, of course they weren't a recognized family) and "Robert," Margaret Garner's husband. Cilla was performed by the soprano, Lisa Daltirus, and she was absolutely wonderful. Robert was performed by a fellow Memphian, Gregg Baker, who was also amazing. Some of their lines and songs nearly brought me to tears. There were moments when I said, probably aloud, "Damn, Toni wrote the shit out of this!"
Then there were other times when I wondered how a line or two would have been expressed if a poet had written the libretto. Though, of course, Toni Morrison's novels often are lyrical, is poetry, or gets very close to it. Overall, the show was good, definitely memorable. Can't remember when the last black-penned opera was performed at this level--probably in the WPA 20's on Haiti? Compared to the excellent second act, the beginning of the opera was slow as molasses. I kept thinking, get on with it, get on with it, we know a little something about slave life, we know about the auction block, we know this story, get on with it, who is Margaret, already? But later, I appreciated the time spent because Toni and the composer, Richard Danielpour, and the director, Tazewell Thompson, did such a wonderful job portraying the black family during this incomprehensible era of American history. Margaret Garner's family WAS the opera, their love for each other, the compassion and humor, the strength and their human frailty, well, that just blew me away.
The sista who starred as Margaret Garner, Tracie Luck, well, she ain't no joke. I wanted to save comments for her last because though I wasn'as knocked out by her singing as I thought I was going to be (and I wasn't that impressed with the theatre itself - clearly, I've been watching too much Italian opera on tv, so the Lincoln Center stage is definitely not all that!), she was an impressive force on that stage. Just the sheer strength of her embodiment of the character was outstanding.
Ah Lawd, and the ending. Goodness, the ending. While some folk may have been squirming a little in their seats (and there was an embarrassingly hilarious moment when Casey, the overseer was strangled by Robert, and folk broke out in catcalls and applause like they were watching a football game), the ending woke yo' humble Negress up. Keep in mind, we'd already seen the hint of a lynching (dear Robert Garner, in front of his wife, Margaret, mother, Cilla, and two small children, a boy and girl--who would become "Beloved" the ghost in Toni's novel), Margaret's gallows scene was ripe with tension. I was on the edge of my seat. There was an odd "Mister" moment, a la THE COLOR PURPLE, when the Gaines 'boss' guy has a change of heart and seeks clemency for Margaret, then his pseudo-abolitionist daughter and her husband, as well as Cilla, thank God for this 'mercy.' Of course, we know that Margaret would rather hang herself than be forced to return to the horror of being in Gaines' hands again, especially since he not only raped her and later lynched her husband, but was responsible for the death of her children. Well, my young companion said she was only confused at this moment, because the actress walked off the gallows, down the stairs, and weaved among the frozen 'audience' of onlookers (townsfolk, slaves, Gaines and Cilla), when a mannekin dressed like Margaret 'hung' itself. At this point, Tracie Luck/Margaret Garner was kneeling downstage, overlooking the orchestra. My babygirl didn't realize that we would have witnessed a real murder if the poor actress had tried that gallows stunt herself.
Other highlights of the performance - did I say how much I appreciated the stark simplicity of the set and the AMAZING lighting? You ever looked at a barn or shed and watched the sunlight dance between the warped and weather-worn slats? Well, the set designer, Donald Eastman, and lighting designer, Robert Wierzel, created this effect on a grand scale, so that they were able to create dawn, dusk, twilight, and midnight on the stage. It was as if the sun truly rose and set on the stage. Wonderful magic! The costumes, by Merrily Murray-Walsh, were well done, at least Margaret's were memorable. She wore the muted tones of the slave quarters in the first part, then when nasty Gaines, played by Timothy Mix, conveniently rented her husband, Robert, out, and moved her to serve in the house quarters, she wore the high-necked indigo blue dress that was in all of the posters. For the final gallows scene, she wore pure white and her hair was a wild burst of blackfire.
And that sista walked, she walked so amazingly through the frozen crowd, staring into the faces at this one and that one, that it was if we were passing on with her, making the journey the performers sang so beautifully that lifted us to our feet. Forgive if I have misremembered Toni's beautiful final lines, but they sang:
"Lord, let her break through the night. Let her break through the night. Let her ride the night, let her linger in the night. Lord, let her break through the night, let her linger in the light, let her linger in the light..."
This song, while that woman was weaving through the crowd, the light on her face, dressed all in white, after having sung a heartbreaking excerpt from an earlier beautiful song she sang with her husband, "It Will Be Just So" (a dream about what they would all do in freedom).
Yes, yo' humble Negress had to quickly wipe away tears.
Okay, thunderous applause, etc., etc. Don't remember how many curtain calls. Apparently, too many, because I spied two musicians jettin' out of the pit, before even the Conductor, George Manahan was pulled on stage! I guess us free Negroes had worried the mess out of them, starting late and such. Maybe they needed that drink, it being the last performance and all. And finally, they brought the director, Mr. Tazewell Thompson, and.. Ms. Morrison on stage. Delighted, she hopped - yes, I said, hopped and skipped like a girlchild, her gorgeous grey locks swinging in a long braid across her shoulders. It was wonderful to see, and we shared her joy, shared her joy.
Then yo' humble Negress was home, kid-you-not, in 7 minutes.
Yeah, I groan about it, but it's experiences like these that remind me why I sometimes love New York.
Now, let's make some mo' art of our own,