Array of Philadelphia choirs lend grace notes to play with tragic core

Listen
Walt Blocker

Walt Blocker

A play has opened at the Annenberg Center in West Philadelphia with a central character – a choir ensemble – that will be performed by a different Philadelphia community choir in each of its 12 performances.

The play, “The Events,” is loosely based on the 2011 massacre in Norway when Anders Breivik, an extreme right-wing nationalist who violently opposed multiculturalism, used a car bomb and firearms to kill 77 people.

“The Events” by David Greig does not tell that story; it never mentions Breivik or his rambling manifesto. Instead, it is set in a small town in the United Kingdom with two main characters: The Boy and Claire, a priest.

“Her political social, emotional energy goes into bringing people together in her community through her work as a choir leader,” said Ramin Gray, artistic director of the Actors Touring Company, which is producing the play. “So she has a choir, and she expressly states at the opening that this is a choir open to everyone, welcomes everyone. She uses it as a political and civic tool.”

This is what happens before the action of the play begins: The Boy, who violently disagrees with the Claire and her choral politics, invades the church and shoots all the members of the choir dead.

However, the choir is still there, onstage, helping Claire figure out what to do after surviving the mass killing she may have caused. They might be a ghost choir; they might be a future choir; they might be an abstracted idea of a choir; they might function like a classic Greek chorus.

The connection to the Norway massacre, likewise, is left fuzzy. It’s there, but vaguely.

“Audiences project whatever they want onto the story that you give them,” said Gray. “Audiences are terribly creative people, much more creative than we are.”

The choir changes nightly, and each will perform only once. They are pulled from Philadelphia range of vocal ensembles: a cappella pop groups, gospel groups, barbershop ensembles, and classical choruses.

“Given it is a play about community, a choir is a ready-made example of a perfect, harmonious community,” said Gray. “Instead of having actors pretending they are a community, why not have a real community on stage, every night?”

Choirs’ part in play comes as surprise

The choral groups are given the music a few weeks in advance – about a half-dozen numbers – but are not told what happens in the play. Upon arrival at the Annenberg Center, each member of that night’s ensemble is given a booklet with a few pages of script interspersed with music. Only about an hour before curtain are the singers told they are expected to share dialogue with the actors, in addition to singing.

“It’s really singable, simple music,” said Walt Blocker, music director of the gospel choir at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, which will perform “The Events” on Saturday. “The power in the music is the lyrics, and how it’s being used in the play. The importance of it will be the simplicity of the music, the words, and the theme of the show, all going to congeal to make it really, really good.”

Before agreeing to do the performance, Blocker insisted on a scoop. He wanted to make sure the message of the play did not conflict with the mission of his gospel choir.

“I got some secrets told to me,” said Blocker. “The one thing I can tell you: the last song goes into a repeat of ‘We’re All Here’ – meaning , no matter where you are, what lifestyle you are in, what race, there are no boundaries. We’re all still here, together.”

Blocker, who leads a sought-after choir which has played the Annenberg Center in the past and is already preparing for a Philly Pops Christmas program, was the exception. The other choirs are purposely left in the dark so that their reactions are as immediate as the audience’s.

“Theater is a transformative art, and the people who should be transformed the most are the people who participate,” said Gray, paraphrasing Bertolt Brecht. “People who are singing in the choirs have the most transformative experience.”

There is also a practical purpose to have a constant rotation of locally sourced choirs: money.

“The Events,” named “best new play” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013, is a traveling show originating in London. Touring a play globally with a cast of 30 singers is financially impossible. It can only happen by the good graces of local choirs.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.