To America – a meditation on race exhumed from Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

United StatesUnited States Death of Classical, ‘To America’: Curated by Andrew Ousley and Harry Weil, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, 23.10.2020. (RP)

Lady Jess (violin) in the Weeping Birch Tunnel © Steven Pisano

Terrance Hayes –
‘Inhale, Exhale’
Carlos Simon – ‘An Elegy – A Cry from the Grave’
H. Leslie Adams – ‘Sence You Went Away’ (arr. Patrick Cannell)
Traditional – ‘Deep River’
Caroline Shaw – ‘In manus tuas’
Handel – ‘Ombra mai fu’ (from Xerxes)
Abel Meeropol – ‘Strange Fruit’
James Weldon Johnson – ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, ’Beauty That Is Never Old’, ‘To America’
Bernstein – ‘Somewhere’ (from West Side Story, arr. Noah Luna)
William Steffe – ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (arr. Rob Booth)
George Walker – ‘Lament’ (String Quartet No.1)
Barber – ‘Adagio for Strings’ (from String Quartet Op.11)
Langston Hughes – ‘Let America Be America Again’

Members of the Harlem Chamber Players
Kenneth Overton (baritone)
Paul Grosvenor (bass)
Robert Burkhart (cello)
Selina Hack (dancer & choreographer)
Jules Biber (cello)
Danielle Buonaiuto (soprano)
Freddie June (singer)
David Beck (reader)
Lucy Dhegrae (mezzo-soprano)
Lady Jess (violin)
Ivan Thompson (tenor & reader)
Scherezade Garcia (artist)

There is no doubt that Andrew Ousley, founder of Death of Classical, has the imagination and wherewithal to conceive a fascinating program at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, as he regularly presents concerts and operas in its Catacombs. A small space, basically a dank tunnel inhabited by the dead with only one way out for the living, would seem a no-go zone at present, but it is really just a detail to be dealt with, isn’t it? And so, the cemetery’s 478 acres of rolling hills with its 600,000 graves became the stage for that most daring of dreams: a live performance with audience in the time of COVID-19 in New York, once the epicenter of the global pandemic.

History was not so much made at Green-Wood, although it was the scene of combat during the American Revolutionary War, as it is buried there. The rich and wealthy lie next to slaves. Foes, such as the more than 5,000 veterans of the Civil War who fought on both sides of the conflict, rest side by side. The last slave in the State of New York, Margaret Pine, who died in 1857 at the age of 80, lies there too. Pine refused to be set free, for what would she do, where would she go in her old age, after dedicating her life to raising the eleven sons of the Van Zandt family. They honored Pine’s request that she be taken care of her in turn and buried her in the family plot with her own monument.

Green-Wood is also the resting place of the twelve-year-old drummer boy, Clarence Mackenzie, who was Brooklyn’s first casualty in the Civil War, and Charlotte Canda, who died in her father’s arms after being injured in a horse-carriage accident on the way home from her seventeenth birthday party. A short distance from the Victorian wedding cake of a monument in which she was interred is the gravestone of her fiancé, who committed suicide a year after her death. He was of a different faith and couldn’t be buried in her family’s plot, which was consecrated ground.

The towering statue of DeWitt Clinton, the sixth governor of New York, was built to promote the cemetery in its early days. Clinton was a force behind the creation of the Erie Canal, which established New York as a center of commerce and trade as the country expanded westward. The canal has a mixed legacy: it was part of the Underground Railroad on which runaway slaves traveled in search of freedom, but its barges hauled cotton cloth that was produced in the Deep South. History is never neat and tidy.

From the stories of these people who died long ago, Ousley, together with Harry Weil, Green-Wood’s Director of Public Programs, exhumed a fascinating story that was equal parts concert, poetry reading, civics lesson and 1619 curriculum primer. It was Ousley’s response to the noise that he and so many other New Yorkers endured during the early months of the pandemic: the sirens of ambulances racing through the city’s streets; the relentless din of politics; the screams of sorrow, pain and frustration that fueled Black Lives Matter protests.

Ousley was inspired by the poetry of James Weldon Johnson, best known today for writing the words to ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’, whose ashes are interred in the cemetery. The song, known as the Negro National Anthem, was sung by baritone Kenneth Overton and tenor Ivan Thompson, played by a brass ensemble from the Harlem Chamber Players and improvised upon by the violinist Lady Jess standing beneath an ancient weeping beech. The words and music of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ flowed like a river throughout the two-hour performance event, which took its name from another of Johnson’s poems, ‘To America’.

Musical meditations followed the brief history lessons. Carlos Simon’s haunting ‘An Elegy – A Cry from the Grave’ was dedicated to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, names that echoed through the streets of New York earlier this summer. It was performed before the Corona Altar by artist Scherezade García. Inspired by the Mexican festival of El Día de los Muertos, the altar is dedicated to all who died from coronavirus. Corona also refers to the crown worn by the rust-colored and weeping Statue of Liberty in the altar’s centerpiece.

The most effective musical reflection was the pairing of soprano Danielle Buonaiuto singing ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Handel’s opera Xerxes with Freddie June’s chilling rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. In the Handel aria, the tree is an object of love, while the song protests the lynching of Black Americans, with lyrics that compare the victims to the fruit of trees. It was a missed opportunity not to include a reading of Joyce Kilmer’s poem, ‘The Tree’; it begins ‘I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree’, and scores of American school children once learned it by rote.

Equally evocative was Lucy Dhegrae’s wistful ‘Somewhere’ from Bernstein’s West Side Story, followed by a dissembled, Dixieland-style version of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ played by the brass of the Harlem Chamber Players. They performed opposite the Soldier’s Lot, established by Green-Wood in 1862 for the free burial of veterans who died during the Civil War in battle or from disease, where the statue of the twelve-year-old drummer boy stands watch. Bernstein also rests nearby in the cemetery.

‘To America’ ended in the Catacombs. As in the chapel, everyone wore masks and people were seated in pairs with ample space between the chairs. A space that normally accommodates about 80 for a performance contained 20 or so. Chairs were placed outside the Catacombs’ doors for those reluctant to go inside.

To the strains of Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, Ivan Thompson gave an impassioned reading of Langston Hughes’ ‘Let America Be America Again’. Written during the Great Depression, the poem highlights the discrepancy between the ideals of the American Dream and the harsh reality that the United States has not yet fulfilled its promised vision of freedom and equality for all people. The power and intensity of his delivery was matched by a string quartet drawn from the Harlem Chamber Players.

Rick Perdian

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