United States The Glimmerglass Festival  – Tesori, Blue: Soloists, The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra / John DeMain (conductor), Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, 14,7,2019. (RP)
Director – Tazewell Thompson
Sets – Donald Eastman
Costumes – Jessica Jahn
Lighting – Robert Wierzel
Hair & Makeup – Samantha M. Wooten
The Father – Kenneth Kellogg
The Mother – Briana Hunter
The Son – Aaron Crouch
The Reverend – Gordon Hawkins
Girlfriend/Nurse/Congregant – Ariana Wehr
Nurses/Congregants – Brea Renetta Marshall, Mia Athey
Policemen/Congregants – Camron Gray, Edward Graves, Nicholas Davis
Child – Jayden Kellogg
‘What story do we need, at this time, at this place?’
For Francesca Zambello, Artistic & General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, Tony Award winning composer Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson, the internationally acclaimed director, playwright, teacher and actor, the story is America’s ongoing struggle with race. The result was Blue, which received its world premiere at the festival on 14 July 2019. It tells a story that I wish never had to be told: the teenage son of a New York City police officer is shot and killed by a fellow officer. The kid was black, the cop white.
Two days after, as I began to write this review, I listened to the voices of Eric Garner’s family grieving over a decision that no federal charges would be brought against the police officer accused of using a chokehold on an unarmed 43-year-old father of six. ’I can’t breathe!’: Garner’s final words uttered five years ago almost to the day became a nationwide rallying cry to demand more police accountability in the deaths of unarmed black men. How I wish Blue wasn’t so relevant and timely, but it is.
If you take race out of the equation, Blue is a commonplace, aspirational story of a family living the American Dream that ends in tragedy. Family, friends and faith are the bedrocks on which a young couple build their lives. They brought a son into the world who is bright, idealistic and rash. The father repeatedly corrects his son, saying that he and his colleague are officers of the law, not cops. Their emotionally charged conflicts were so realistic that they made me wince. (I was a smart-mouthed teenager myself.) Their arguments end in hugs, however reluctant the son was to yield to his father’s almost desperate embrace.
Race, however, touches every aspect of their lives. The mother’s three best friends recoil when she announces that she is carrying a boy, advising her to go for a girl instead. Amid the congratulations, the father’s friends wonder why they only have girls. (The dots weren’t connected, but there was no need to.) Anger masks the father’s fears; his boy’s political activism and recurrent brushes with the police make him a target. All of his illusions are shattered when they become a reality, and he must accept the harsh truth that his son is dead because he was black.
The tragedy is heightened because there is so much joy in their story: A young wife so in love that she doesn’t tell her best friends that she got married, let alone that she is pregnant. A father who has never held a baby before, admonished that he is holding his newborn son like a football. The idyllic days when he was a boy, captured in a scene where he is running about in city a park.
The memories all came flooding back as the father-son conflicts mount and later as the parents attempt to cope with their grief. The father’s final moments with his son will haunt him. The young man, so sunny and confident, tells his father not to worry. It is a peaceful protest and nothing will go wrong.
The ordinariness of Tesori’s eclectic score seems just right for this American saga. As with Thompson’s libretto, there is no posturing, just truth. It is accessible, tuneful music, full of rhythmic drive that underscores how ordinary these folks are. It smacks a bit of Broadway, with its soaring melodies, rich harmonization and orchestrations big and spacious, but that’s not a putdown. One of Tesori’s touches is to have a phrase climax on a sustained high note with the orchestra swelling beneath it. It gets you every time.
The set is simple, just a string of Harlem row houses. Depending on the lighting, they either loomed large or receded into the background. Furniture was rolled in to create the spaces where the story unfolds. Two indelible images in the production are of light shining through a single doorway in the dark on the night after the young man’s death, and his white coffin covered with a spray of flowers.
His parents were portrayed by Briana Hunter and Kenneth Kellogg. The arc of emotions that Hunter traversed as the mother was nearly identical to those that Schumann captured in Frauenliebe und -leben: she was an everywoman. Hunter’s rich, alluring mezzo-soprano captured them all in the varied musical styles that Tesori employed to depict those moments. The scene where Hunter sat motionless, her face frozen in grief while her friends dressed her for her son’s funeral, was devastating, but effaced by her nobility as she came to terms with her loss.
The power of Kellogg’s performance as the father was its restraint, all the more impressive as his bass voice is cut from the same cloth as his imposing physique. The first sight of him is in a hoodie and a baseball cap, before he dons the uniform of an officer of the law. Although love and warmth were always present, the father kept his emotions in check, always slightly awkward when things got personal. His response to his son’s death, however, was rage. Thompson didn’t pull any punches, and the words the father spit out were raw and incendiary.
The six singers in their multiple roles of friends, colleagues and mourners each had their moments, but Ariana Wehr, a sparkling, flamboyant presence through the show, had a star turn as the nurse who teaches the father how to hold a baby. Gordon Hawkins was the minister to whom the father turned for help. At first, the Reverend offered hollow platitudes, but the father’s raw grief and anger moved him to eloquence. At the funeral, Hawkins’s imposing, sonorous voice soared as he led those assembled in a soaring anthem of grief, defiance and hope.
With his dreadlocks and hoodie, Aaron Crouch was just a typical urban teenager, maybe a bit more idealistic than most. You see them everywhere on the streets of New York. Crouch was irritable and belligerent most of the time, but the curtain came down on him with a smile on his face and hope in his eyes.
After the show, I caught sight of Kenneth Kellogg and his son walking across the grass on a sunny day. It was a flashback to that scene in the park and brought a lump to my throat. I wish it hadn’t.
For more information about the 2019 Glimmerglass Festival click here.