Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Although the situation is innately dramatic, the 13 cast members are a largely undifferentiated group. They all are identified by character name in the program, but most of them are never addressed by name and those who are named don't speak for themselves until the second act.
Thompson and his cast recount the remarkable story of the 1866 founding of Fisk University, an educational institution for former slaves, housed in a decrepit abandoned army hospital. "Real freedom was education," the students note, but education is expensive.
When the students discover a buried cache of shackles, restrictive collars, and other instruments used against slaves while planting a garden on the school grounds, they find both a source of immediate income (selling the hardware for scrap metal) and a desire to sing the songs that sustained them and their ancestors during the centuries of bondage. With the help of a white chorus leader, they form the Fisk Jubilee Singers, performing concerts to raise funds for the survival of their school.
Standouts include Aundi Marie Moore as an ambitious soprano who wants more than just singing as part of the group; Zonya Love and Simone Paulwell as chorus members with gripping personal stories; and Lisa Arrindell in a succession of slightly caricatured roles including a snooty white Southern matron and Queen Victoria herself.
Music director Dianne Adams McDowell also created the rapturous a cappella vocal arrangements, which provide the power and energy of the production. (Learning and maintaining these harmonies takes work and practice; the show's opening was delayed for a week because of a cast member's illness and the opening performance featured understudy Brittani McNeill in place of Shaleah Adkisson.)
While Donald Eastman's scenic design is spare, consisting primarily of mismatched chairs and a rear wall damaged by peeling plaster, the overall production is striking. Costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh incorporates elaborate draping and other details in her monochrome costumes, while Robert Wierzel's lighting, Shawn Duan's projections, and especially Fabian Obispo's sound design bring the scenes into sharp focus.