“Watch Night” is Bill T. Jones and company’s response to the mass shootings by white supremacists of nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 and of eleven Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2018.
It’s not a straightforward account of the two massacres or their aftermath, not documentary theater, but a gorgeously sung-through opera and stunningly staged dance theater piece that presents a series of confrontations and debates between fictionalized characters. These are lyrical expressions of harsh thoughts and unreconciled emotions. This first theater piece commissioned by the recently opened Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC) could not feel more appropriate for its location at the World Trade Center.
Conceived by Jones, who serves as director and choreographer, and by librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, with a score by Tamar-kali that infuses operatic recitative with a sound rooted in spirituals and a rhythm in spoken word poetry, “Watch Night” tells the story through eight principal characters.
The character called The Wolf (Kevin Csolak) is the white supremacist who has killed eleven people at the Red Black and Gold African Methodist Episcopal church. He is a silent presence at the start, a dazzle of movement throughout (Csolak is a remarkable dancer) and only at climactic moments in the piece do we hear his hate-fueled philosophy, matter-of-factly delivered.
Ms. Summers (Jill Paice) was The Wolf’s teacher in high school, her character serving three focused functions: 1. to illustrate briefly the media frenzy of which she is a target; 2. to illuminate the person who would grow up to be a mass murderer (“he was an average student/But he was a brilliant artist…A photographer and a poet”), and the forces that shaped him (“born White in the south… Certain things endure…”) and 3. to demonstrate the cluelessness of those given the responsibility of being the first line of defense:
“The boy, as I remember, never said anything… But he raised his palm
Like he was holding a piece of sky
Left it up when I called on him as if to say hi… Or Heil
Prob’ly just ‘hi’ (I think…) “
The central character is Josh (Brandon Michael Nase), a Black, Jewish journalist (“I write about race-based rage/Byline in all the middlebrow places.”) He sees the tragedy at the church as a career opportunity. His brother Saul (Arri Lawton Simon) disapproves:
“I don’t believe you out here doing this again exploiting these people…”
“Not exploiting,” Josh replies. “Revealing. Don’t make it sound so evil.” But his opportunism is blatant, his repeated refrain: “I know my next story is going to be ready-made for Hollywood.”
The brothers’ conflict is not limited to Saul’s perception of Josh’s lack of ethics but also Josh’s lack of religious conviction. Saul is an observant Jew; Josh a lapsed one. Eventually, Saul ropes Josh into attending a Sabbath service with his rabbi, Rabine (Brian Golub)
Josh interviews three members of the church:
its pastor Winters (Ṣọla Fadiran); Ms. Laura (Josette Elaine Newsam), the sole survivor of the assault, and Shayla (Danyel Fulton), who happens to work as a guard on Death Row. Josh asks some insensitive questions, and gets some tart replies:
Josh: I see that you’re crying/Can you tell me why
Shayla: Why aren’t YOU crying Mr. Reporter?
But the exchanges introduce some of the large debates, as much theological as political. Josh senses that Shayla has become as cynical towards religion as he is. Later, when besides the Wolf as his guard, she tells of the time as a child she heard about the police killing of Amadou Diallo and began an inner debate: “If God loves us so/Why fill one race with such Rage?” She wonders now whether vengeance might be a higher calling than forgiveness.
The debate over forgiveness gets its full airing in several thrilling encounters – between Winters and Rabine, whose Spring Hope Synagogue happens to be across the street from Winters’ church, an intellectual high point of the play, and between Shayla and Ms. Laura, which is most memorable musically, primarily because of Josette Elaine Newsam’s spectacular gospel-tinged singing.
“Watch Night” is not just a series of debates. It has a solid plot, which takes in the mass shootings at both Winters’ church and (by a copy cat) at Rabine’s synagogue, and features a couple of twists that I won’t tell you about. But the way the story unfolds is not conventional, employing oblique storytelling and inventive stagecraft that might require a little getting used to.
The audience is on two sides of the stage; the middle staircases on both sides lead to red-framed doors meant to replicate those in a church. The cast performs throughout the auditorium.
Above either end of the main stage are screens, that primarily project select lines from the libretto, the projection designer Lucy Mackinnon thus turned into a Jenny Holzer for the theater. (I would have preferred that the entire text had been projected, as is done for most operas these days, but this technique certainly makes the chosen lines resonate.)
A duo of singers called the Super/Natural (Ken Alston Jr. and Onyie Nwachukwu) function as a kind of a Greek chorus but also an Amen chorus, like backup singers to the principal players.
The ensemble is also a sort of Greek chorus, but primarily in dance. Called (cleverly) the Echo Chamber, they embody that media frenzy directed at Ms. Summers (and at others), as well as the choir in the AME church, worshippers at a synagogue service, inmates on death row, the racists in white supremacist chat rooms.
The dancing is evocative, exquisite. The few words spoken – so familiar to us all – feel like an indictment:
Echo Chamber (legislator)
At some point we need more than thoughts and prayers
Echo Chamber (acolyte)
A Killer is a visionary who has followed the course
Echo Chamber (“the public”)
How could this tragedy happen again
Josh spends much time speculating as to how he could shape the story of the mass murders for a Hollywood movie. These are the only words I remember being spoken in the show, rather than sung. For example, he says: “Maybe the story could be about the disillusioned Black woman with a badge. I could write her like a young Black Winona Ryder.” Now, it is easy to believe that the glib and predictable treatment of these endlessly repeated tragedies (in the press, by the entertainment industry, by politicians, by the public) is not just unseemly; it contributes to their perpetuation. But this over-the-top depiction of Josh as relentlessly obsessed with Hollywood fame initially struck me as such a piling on to a portrait already so ungenerous that it shaded into the implausible and polemical. Eventually it occurred to me what may be going on. Consciously or not, the creative team may be trying to distinguish themselves from all the Joshes — from every previous account of and comment on these mass shootings; intent on responding to these outrages as differently from Hollywood as possible — as artfully as they can conceive — so as not to feel complicit.
PAC NYC through November 18
Running time: Two hours with no intermission
Co-conceived, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones
Co-conceived and book by Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Composed and orchestrated by Tamar-kali
Scenic design by Adam Rigg, costume design by Kara Harmon, lighting design by Robert Wierzel, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, projection design by Lucy Mackinnon, and wig design by Anika Seitu, fight director Jason Paul Tate. Music Director Adam Rothenberg. TProduction Stage Manager Sarah Elizabeth Ford.
Cast: Brandon Michael Nase as Josh and Danyel Fulton as Shayla, Ken Alston Jr., Amanda Bailey,Royer Bockus, DeJa-Simone Crumpton, Kevin Csolak, Sola Fadiran, Brian Golub, Chelsea,Nicole Green, Raquel Jennings, Damon McToy, Josette Elaine Newsam, Ariel Neydavoud, Onyie Nwachukwu, Jill Paice, Oneika Phillips, Devin L. Roberts, Arri Lawton Simon, Jonathan McClinton Smith, Cooper Stanton, and Miguel Ángel Vásquez.
Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman