By Beverly Pereira
Based on Charles M. Blow’s book by the same name, Terence Blanchard’s landmark opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones—to be screened at the NCPA in the first week of June—digs deep to unearth the unspoken struggles and suppressed pain associated with the Black American experience.
Last year, 27th September marked the first time a work by a Black composer and librettist was staged at the Metropolitan Opera in the 139 years of its existence. After 18 long, silent months of a forced shutdown due to the pandemic, the storied New York institution had finally reopened to the public. The 2021-22 season opener, an opera titled Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is the creation of Grammy award-winning jazz composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Centred around the tension and trauma of growing up as a Black man in the American south, the opera shattered the definitive silence that relates to the Black experience and, consequently, the Black Lives Matter movement which had gained traction only a year prior to this. To further the reach and sense of urgency that the opera and its theme command, it was simulcast as part of the Met’s award-winning Live in HD series that brings live transmissions of some of the greatest operas to theatres across the globe.
Blanchard’s groundbreaking opera had first created a stir when it premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in Missouri in 2019. An adaptation of the eponymous 2014 memoir by author and The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, it is set in and around the small, poverty-stricken town of Gibsland in northwestern Louisiana and at the author’s alma mater, Grambling State University. Journeying from Blow’s childhood in the 1970s to his adulthood in the 1990s against the background of dire poverty of the rural African American community and the struggles associated with systemic class and race discrimination, the narrative’s central theme focusses on the traumatic impact that an incident of sexual abuse by a cousin had on the seven-year-old Charles.
Blanchard, whose works are rooted in jazz, is revered for noteworthy scores composed for a long list of Spike Lee films as much as he is for his first opera titled Champion (2013). With Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Blanchard composed a score well grounded in the classical tradition and richly suffused with his signature form-defying jazz. Reflecting his experience in film scores, a notable feature of the opera’s music involves the use of lyrical sweeps that intend to propel the action forward.
Directed by acclaimed stage director James Robinson and choreographer Camille A. Brown and conducted by the celebrated Canadian conductor and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Fire Shut Up in My Bones features a talented cast well-suited to the rigours of the compelling opera. With the Met premiere, Brown, who has also choreographed the production, became the first Black director to present a mainstage Met production. Yet another historic first associated with the opera is the fact that it features a libretto by celebrated screenwriter, film director and first-time librettist Kasi Lemmons. Together, Blanchard and Lemmons bring to life a range of emotions—rage, sadness, fragility, loneliness and pain—that play out sensitively across the three acts of the opera.
The performers are a skilled and seasoned set led by the Grammy-nominated baritone Will Liverman as Charles and celebrated soprano Latonia Moore as Charles’s mother Billie. The sensational soprano Angel Blue, who performed with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) at the NCPA in 2015, plays an equally weighty role as Greta, Charles’s love interest. Blue’s charisma guides two more characters, Destiny and Loneliness, to represent the forces that shape Charles’s life. Young Charles (known as Char’es-Baby) is played by the talented 13-year-old Walter Russell III who made his Broadway debut as Young Michael Jackson in MJ The Musical and had performed across the United States and Canada as Young Simba in the national tour of Disney’s The Lion King.
The opera opens with a college-going Charles driving down a Louisiana backroad with a gun in the passenger seat. The viewer is introduced to characters like Destiny, Char’es-Baby and his mother Billie at the very start as Charles begins reliving memories from his childhood. Adding depth to the writing are the frequent interactions between Charles and his younger self throughout the opera. The harrowing incident of sexual trauma perpetrated by a cousin on the seven-year-old Char’es-Baby unleashes a lengthy process of shame, anger and sadness that spanned years. As times moves on, Charles finds himself struggling in his relationships. While the personification of Destiny challenges him to consider his place in the world, the personification of Loneliness lays claims on him not only with his love
interest Greta but also with his mother whose love is clear but not always available. Charles must confront a range of internal conflicts depicted as musicalised internal monologues that give voice to the character’s psychological journey to self-acceptance.
“In the opera, Charles is faced with a brutal choice and looks back on his life to understand what has led him to a potentially life-ruining crossroads,” explains Robinson in the Met’s programme notes. “He questions his role in certain traumatic events and wonders how he could have changed the course of his own personal history. His is a journey of self-loathing, self-discovery, and eventually self-forgiveness. Charles states that he is a ‘stranger in my hometown,’ and I find this idea deeply affecting, for many of us have felt the loneliness of not fitting in or not belonging, even in an environment that should be comforting and familiar.”
Two phrases in the opera—“Sometimes you gotta’ just leave it in the road” and “I bend, I don’t break, I sway”—resonate with co-director and choreographer Brown who, in her note, says that the lines speak to the specificity of the Black experience but also call upon a universal theme of determination and the need for personal resolution. Step, a social dance rooted in African American history and culture, can be traced back 200 years to West Africa. “It is also embedded in the fabric of Black fraternities and sororities, which were intentionally created as safe spaces when white Greek-letter organisations would not let Black men and women join them,” writes Brown. The energetic style of dance finds a fitting place in the opera. “At one point in history, Black people were not allowed to perform on stages like this one and, even more so, were not able to authentically portray our own narratives. The full spectrum of our real lives [was] unseen. But we did not break. Once invisible, now beautifully and vibrantly visible. Past, present, and future, we sway,” she adds.
Fire Up in My Bones deals with the complications, pain and trauma specific to Black people and minorities, even as it unearths a range of experiences that holds immense contemporary relevance to race and culture. Ultimately, it is an achievement in storytelling that is testimony to the human spirit’s need for validation and belonging.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones will be screened on 2nd June at the Godrej Dance Theatre.
*This piece was originally published in the May 2022 issue of ON Stage by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai