Artists Without Walls in this week’s Irish Echo, featuring photos from AWoW’s Collaboration Night at the Cell and Charles R. Hale’s “Rise Up Singing: Women in the Labor Movement.” Photos by Vera Hoar and Cat Dwyer.
“Eloquent writing, beautiful voices, charismatic performers who connected with each other — it was an inspired evening.” Justine Blau, author of “Scattered: A Mostly True Memoir,” after attending “Rise Up Singing: Women in the Labor Movement” at Lehman College.
On Tuesday night, The City & Humanities Program, in conjunction with the CUNY Institute of Irish American Studies and the Department of African American Studies at Lehman College, presented writer/creator Charles R. Hale and a brilliant cast of Artists Without Walls’ members in “Rise Up Singing: Women in the Labor Movement” a multi-media event incorporating storytelling, film, photographs and music.
The evening began with Honor Finnegan’s rousing performance of Jack Hardy’s “Aint I A Woman,” a song borne of Sojourner Truth’s speech on gender inequalities. Actor Jack O’Connell followed with an introduction in which he quoted author John Steinbeck: “We learn a great deal about people by listening to their music. Listen to their songs, for into the songs go the anger, fears and frustrations, the hopes and aspirations.”
Throughout American history, activists have adapted the lyrics from spiritual songs and applied them to various causes. Singer Antoinette Montague and pianist Sharp Radway followed a short story, accompanied by photos, of the deadly 1911, New York City, Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, with an inspired rendition of “We Shall Not be Moved,” a American folk song whose lyrics date back to slave era. One-hundred-forty six women, mostly young immigrants, lost their lives at the Triangle factory fire.
A year after the Triangle fire, striking women mill workers in Lawrence, MA were surrounded by the threat of physical harm. They continually sang “Bread and Roses,” a poem written by James Oppenheim, put to music. Honor Finnegan and guitarist Vincent Cross gave rise to the spirit of that event with an intense performance of “Bread and Roses.”
Following the Civil War, racial prejudice kept African American women working in jobs such as cooks, maids and laundresses. Spoken word artist Koro Koroye presented a poem that she wrote, called “The Sickness of Freedom,” which poignantly describes the difficulties faced by African American women, many of whom were slaves and daughters of slaves, in the post Civil War era.
Woody Guthrie was an American singer-songwriter whose musical legacy includes hundreds of songs about the experiences of the poor and oppressed. Woody’s song “1913 Massacre” is one of the most powerful interpretations of the Calumet, Michigan tragedy in which seventy-three people, mostly striking miners’ children, were trampled to death on a staircase during a Christmas Eve party. Vincent Cross evoked the spirit of Calumet and Woody with a stirring rendition of Woody’s tune.
Women have written a number of “workers” songs. One of them, Diana Jones, performed two songs she’s written, the heartbreakingly tender “Henry Russell’s Last Words,” in which she was beautifully accompanied by violinist Annette Homann, and “I Told the Man.” Each song tells the story of miners trapped hundreds of feet below ground, writing farewell notes to their families.
In the summer of 1968 six miners were trapped for 10 days in a cold, flooded mine in the Appalachian hills of West Virginia. Jeanne Richie wrote a song from a wife’s viewpoint called “West Virginia Mine Disaster.” Honor Finnegan sang and performed from the perspective of a trapped miner’s wife and Jack O’Connell played the trapped miner who describes the horror of the experience. The back and forth between Finnegan and O’Connell was exceptional and one of the evening’s many spectacular performances.
Addie Wyatt, who became the first African American woman to retain a high position in an international union, couldn’t do enough for people. She was born into poverty in Mississippi in 1924 and grew up in Chicago during the depression. When Addie was a child she played piano for her church choir…she even sang with the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Addie’s life was marked by “getting over” indignities such as discrimination and prejudice. Koro’s poem “Praise,” speaks to the pain of Addie’s setbacks but ends triumphantly with the words “I prayed until I got over.” This was a perfect lead-in to final tune of the evening, “How I Got Over,” which was popularized by Mahalia Jackson. Singer Montague, pianist Radway, violinist Homann and Koro combined to create a unique and rousing ending to the show.
“I’m so proud and grateful to be a member of Artists Without Walls. Tuesday’s Showcase featured a video of a young spoken word poet from Nigeria collaborating with a talented pair of Irish musician brothers, a chanteuse-accordionist, a documentary filmmaker/writer reading her latest short story, a solo trombonist and Near Eastern dance. It’s the best New York has to offer — and nice people to boot!” Maria Deasy
I walked into The Cell Theatre an hour before the Artists Without Walls’ Showcase and I was presented with the perfect antidote to the cacophony that is a New York City rush hour, the sweeping sound of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Violinist Navid Kandelousi, who later opened the Showcase tenderly weaving phrases of Bach, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, was strolling through the theatre, warming to the task. I knew the evening would be special.
Jenai Huff followed Navid with three songs from her upcoming EP, Grace and Elbow Grease. She opened with “Just Like Me,” followed with “Splintered Light” and finished with her brand new song and title track “Grace and Elbow Grease.” Her radiant smile, the pure timbre of her voice and soulful lyrics captivated and touched the hearts of the audience.
Stephanie Silber read from a haunting excerpt from her short story, The Lemon Tree, which is set during the height of the Vietnam War. A little girl and her grandmother are visiting the
latter’s stricken friend in a rehab hospital. The glamour and allure of Manhattan are seen vividly through the child’s eyes, juxtaposed against the stark realities of great physical trauma; the fragment hints of the redemptive power of human resilience. A powerful reading.
Samara, who is the choreographer and artistic director of dance for The Mosaic Dance and Theater Company, and two of Mosaic’s dancers, Su’ad and Naima, performed traditional Near Eastern Dance. Su’ad performed an Oriental Dance, which was choreographed by Samara
with music by Adam Basma. Naima performed another one of Samara’s magnificent choreographies, an Arabic/Spanish Fusion called Balia Maria with music written and performed by Alabina. Samara ended the presentation with an Oriental Dance piece called Princess of Cairo. The sensual performers, the pulsating music and shimmering costumes made the dances a joy to watch.
Composer and jazz trombonist Chris Stover played a brand new solo arrangement of Chico Buarque’s “Apesar de você, ” a work dedicated to his Brazilian friends who, as Chris said, “Are fighting the good fight and making things happen in Brazil – saravá, gente!” Chris spent many years as the go-to trombone player in the jazz and Afro-Cuban scenes in Seattle. It’s clear why, since his playing incorporates a shimmering veneer and a casual sway even as the music’s tempo picks up.
Accordionist and chanteuse Marni Rice evokes an interesting blend of New York and Paris. With heartfelt songs and accordion in hand we heard Piaf, although we didn’t hear a word of French. We heard the streets of Paris, but it’s a theater on 23rd street in NYC. Marni’s songs are songs of New York, and yet we are transported to another time and place. Three excellent works by an incredibly talented artist.
Mark Donnelly gave a marvelous performance of a monologue from his one-act play The Steamfitter’s Dream. Smith and Kraus originally published the monologue in the collection Best Men’s Monologues of 1998. Mark truly captured the soul of alcoholic construction worker Pete O’Rourke as he takes a hard look at his life. Mark based the character of Pete on one of his uncles. Though not in the trade himself, Mark revealed proudly after the performance that he comes from several generations of New York Local 638 of the Steamfitters union.
Charles R. Hale ended the evening with a film featuring spoken word poet Koro Koroye and singers Owen and Moley O Suilleabhain. Koro’s poems of identity and individual expression with the O Suilleabhain’s performing Latin Gregorian chant and sacred songs from ancient Ireland are seamlessly presented in a dynamic performance that honors tradition and rejoices in innovation. Three brilliant young performers on the rise.
It was another splendid evening. The next Showcase at The Cell will be on September 30, 7pm. For more information about Artists Without walls write to email@example.com
A special thank you to Cat Dwyer and Vera Hoar for the wonderful photos.
Artists Without Walls will be appearing at The Studio Theater, Lehman College on April 25, 7PM. Thanks to Lehman’s Timothy Marquart and Joe McElligott for designing a terrific poster for the event. Also, thanks to Cat Dwyer for providing the photos of Koro and Billy Barrett. Here’s the poster: