By MARILYN LESTER**** Call it a concert production, a song cycle, a jazz-rock opera, a concept piece or what you will, but one thing is for certain: Cross That River: A Tale of the Black West, by Allan Harris and Pat Harris, raises the bar for musical and theatrical works about the black experience in American life. It’s a vibrant, energetic, music-filled piece that stands on its own as exciting theatre – with the added bonus of being historically important. Cross That River is the story of a black cowboy called Blue. In that tale lies a wealth of truth and implication. What Cross That River does is to correct history in the most entertaining way possible, and its accuracy is right on target. (Writers who bend the truth, take note: It is possible to tell a powerful story without fudging facts.) That truth is that one in four cowboys in the old West was black, yet no Hollywood or TV western played to this fact. Some even say the character of The Lone Ranger was based on Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. Marshall, whose spectacular career as a law enforcement officer is the stuff of legends.
The saying goes that it’s the victors who write history. For the United States, its slave culture remains a haunting legacy, based on the overarching and deeply ingrained myth that America is a white nation. So much of black history and so many black contributions have been hidden from view that novelist and educator Toni Morrison refers to this as “disremembering.” Cross That River sets the record straight. It’s the work of jazz singer and sometime songwriter Allan Harris, who wrote the score and, in collaboration with his wife/manager Pat Harris also wrote the book. The catalyst of action in the story is the love affair between Blue, a slave on a plantation in Louisiana and the Massa’s enlightened daughter, Courtney. To their credit, the Harrises make that cultural anomaly plausible. That forbidden love is, of course, doomed, sealing Blue’s fate. It happens he’s a horse whisperer of sorts, so, with the help of Courtney and his Mama Lila, he steals his master’s best horse and heads West. The journey is positively harrowing as he gallops to escape, crossing the Sabine River to freedom.
Blue’s timeline is slightly ahead of the opening up of the West to men of color. A few years after his escape, at the end of the Civil War (in which blacks fought for the Union), freedmen headed West where the demand for skilled labor was high. And so, the story of Blue – as foreman of epic cattle drives, as a rancher, a lover and husband and eventually as a father, is played out in narrative and song. The strength of Cross That River lies in its musical thrust, with lyrics that masterfully propel the story forward. The narrative is sometimes expository, but mostly works even with a minimum of dialog. Its cast of three, plus Harris as lead vocalist and narrator, is blessedly talented. Harris himself, not an actor by trade, reveals thespian talents, with impeccable timing, no doubt owing to his musicality and years of expertly interpreting song lyrics. As young Blue, Jeffrey Lewis matches Harris in depth and charm. The pair makes a sincere duo, and the frequent shifts in dialog point of view between them is not only poetic, but harkens to the dazzling jazz technique of call-and-response playing.
The two women of the cast, who both play multiple roles, are wondrous of voice, and fully invested in character differentiation. Carolyn Leonhart as Courtney, a saloon hall girl and a Native American, is staunchly authentic in her dramatic process. Maya Azucena as Mama Lila, Annie, a saloon hall girl and a Native American, possesses one of the most expressive faces on the planet. Every emotion she feels in character appears in her countenance and in her carriage. She’s a find. Direction by Reggie Life helps keep the action flowing at a well-paced clip. Although the actors hardly move around the stage, positioned behind their music stands, they’re animated and energetic. Each seems to draw on an innate force of feeling to keep the story interesting and authentic.
What’s also exciting about Cross That River is its music-making. In addition to Harris’s guitar, Alan Grubner (violin), Miki Hayama (keyboard), Seth Johnson (guitar) and Jay White (bass guitar) play in the pocket of Harris’ score. They’re led by music director and drummer-percussionist Shirazette Tinnin, a master at her craft. She not only presides over the domain of her instruments with a surety and confidence that’s otherworldly, but the ease with which she does so is breathtaking. Her drumming on Cross That River‘s title song, with increasing speed, was superhuman in its emulation of desperate hoof beats. Tinnin brought Blue’s harrowing flight to freedom to life and then some. Each of the numbers in Cross That River is distinctive and evocative of the old West, and each matches the action of the plot perfectly. It’s a largely toe-tapping score, filled with influences from bluegrass, folk music, gospel and country, unified by jazz. Harris the songwriter is in the groove; his work is accessible and rhythmically engrossing.
Cross That River, toward its ending, tackles the oppression of America’s native peoples, ironically at the hands, in part, of the Buffalo soldiers, regiments of blacks who served in the West, protecting settlers, capturing horse and cattle thieves and battling Indians. There’s a strong message in this segment of Cross That River, a narrative choice that adds heft to the plot. Ultimately, Cross That River takes its place in over 300 years of black theatre history in this country, a history that is itself often inadequately represented or almost unknown. Who today is aware that the first black legit play was James Brown’s King Shotaway in 1823 or that performing artists such as Bert Williams and George Walker wrote musical comedies to negate the disparaging images of blacks in minstrel shows? On the plus side, as black theater in America continued to develop throughout the years, it became increasingly integrated into the mainstream of theatrical production. It also became progressively more assertive in its messaging, especially in portraying white exploitation of blacks. Black playwrights such as Lorraine Hansberry, Ed Bullins, Katori Hall, Suzan-Lori Parks and August Wilson, among others, are indelible members of mainstream American theatre. Yet, the hidden history of black life and culture and the vast contributions that blacks have made to the American way of life still remain largely unexplored on stage and in the history books.
Cross That River: A Tale of the Black West is a gentle but effective corrective. What’s more, its end game is healing. Cross That River stands firmly on the platform of inclusivity. Its “we’re all in this together” message acknowledges that it’s the contributions of all the races that have made America what it is. “We must always remember: We built this country together” is Blue’s last line, flowing into the uplifting and patriotic ”I Do Believe.” Amen, and hats off to Allan and Pat Harris for their forward vision and magnificent talent.
Cross That River: A Tale of the Black West is at 59E59 Theaters through December 31. For ticketing and a full schedule, go to www.59e59.org
All photos by Carol Rosegg