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Spirituals show sparks controversy


Rochester Fringe begins in two weeks, and over the course of 11 days it will present more than 500 performances at venues in and around downtown. It's a rich, eclectic mix, and while the focus of many of the shows is serious, Fringe events don't ordinarily create controversies. This year, though, one show has: over whether or not the performers are the appropriate ones for the subject matter.

The show, "Holding on Through Song: a Celebration of the African-American Spiritual," was created by the local choir group First Inversion and was booked by one of the Fringe venues, the Lyric Theatre. The Fringe site's description of the production was initially paired with a photograph (chosen and uploaded by the show's producers) of a predominantly white choir. This resulted in a heated discussion about whether white people should sing spirituals. Some activists and arts community members called for the show to be removed from the festival's lineup.

Local singer Champagne Brown says she was surprised to see an image of white performers associated with an event about spirituals, which she considers to be a sacred part of the black community.

Spirituals were originally transcribed to choral arrangements so that performances of them could be used to raise money to aid abolitionists' efforts, and, later, to support the newly free black community after the American Civil War. While some of the music survived in communities as it originally had — through oral tradition — much of the history and context of the spirituals was lost.

Brown says she felt that First Inversion's audience might be ignorant of the weight of the music, and that the show would make a spectacle of a sensitive and sacred part of black history. While she initially called for the show to be canceled, she has also said that the Rochester performing community was full of black singers who would like to support a performance like this one.

On Facebook, community activist Christopher Coles, who had discussed the issue with members of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), called for First Inversion founder and director Lee Wright to cancel the event and engage in a community discussion.

Cole's Facebook post quickly received nearly 400 comments, with some people calling for letters to be written to the Fringe Festival, the Lyric Theatre, and KeyBank, a major Fringe sponsor. One commenter called the performance "racist and insulting." "Spirituals are not just songs!" the post said. "There is a deep history involved chronicling our survival and escape from American slavery! This would be just as insulting if camp songs were being performed from the Holocaust!"

Coles' post linked to a page that advertised the show using an image of masculine black hands wrapped in chains. Coles and others called for protests of the event, and Wright says he was inundated with disparaging messages and emails.

Wright and Coles met to discuss what could be done to change the event in a way that would be uplifting to the black community. They discussed the criticisms of the production and Wright's expertise and background, and his goal in presenting the material to Rochester audiences. And they came to a consensus that more work needed to be done in considering how the program would be presented.

"The concept for this particular concert, the spirituals, have always been really important to me," Wright said in an interview over the weekend. Wright, who is African American, says that his study and performance of spirituals is a preservation and continuation of his culture.

His in-progress doctoral study looks specifically at early collections of African-American spiritual music, from when the oral tradition was first being written in musical notation, and considers the way different volumes of the written-down spirituals represent the music on the page. But, he said, "of course my interest in the spiritual goes way beyond that."

Spirituals are part of Wright's personal and religious life as well. For the last 11 years, he has led the music ministry at Rochester's Downtown United Presbyterian Church, where spirituals are part of the repertoire. And the community, history, and identity he finds within the songs made them a logical choice for First Inversion to perform as part of the Fringe Festival, he said.

Wright said he founded First Inversion because many choirs he'd participated in were so focused on the reading and performance of music that a sense of community and communication was often lost.

"Sometimes in choirs we can focus so much on getting it right, singing the right notes at the right time and making a beautiful performance, that the idea of actually connecting with each other gets lost," he said. "My Number 1 goal for the group has always been to bring people together to learn from each other and to learn about themselves by making honest connections with other people."

And spirituals are a regular part of the repertoire of First Inversion, he said.

For the Fringe production, Wright selected a variety of songs that displayed the range and history of African-American spirituals, and he said he hoped to share that knowledge through song and performance.

Despite the initial at-times vitriolic online posts, Coles and Wright have agreed to work together to bring Wright's knowledge of the spiritual tradition to people of color.

Wright will host a community dialogue from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 30, at Danforth Community Center, 200 West Avenue. Afterward, Wright and representatives of the Lyric Theatre will decide whether the show will go on, and what it will look like.

"I hope that we can find a way forward," Wright said, recognizing, he added, that, "you know, you can't do anything in this world that's going to please everybody."

His goal, he said, is to be able to do something that helps people, and that he's agreeable to changing the program and involving new people. "I want to do whatever it takes to further the goals of love that I set in place to begin with," he said. "I want to address the hurt and see if there's a way that we can all come together and have it be something really fantastic. And I think canceling it, in a way, almost says we couldn't figure out how to come together. And I don't like that message. I don't want that message."

If the Fringe performance goes forward as scheduled, Wright will hold open auditions for community members to participate. Auditions will be held on Friday, August 31, and Saturday, September 1, at Downtown United Presbyterian Church. People interested in auditioning can sign up for one of the time slots using the online registration form or email [email protected]. Singers don't need to prepare or take anything to the audition.

"Holding On Through Song" is scheduled for Thursday, September 13, and Saturday, September 15, at 8 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre Main Stage.