Although education is an accepted fact of life for most young people in the 21st century, recently-freed slaves in post-emancipation America were often still denied that basic right. But one brave group of students at a Southern university persevered and changed history, and their inspirational tale will come to life beginning May 8 when the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit presents "Sing Jubilee! The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers" at the Detroit Film Theatre.
"It's a particular challenging story, I think, because of the time period and the complexity of what was going on," director Kate Peckham said of the original production, written by University of Michigan playwright-in-residence OyamO. "The story itself is very powerful."
The singers were organized in 1871 by Fisk University Treasurer and music professor George L. White to raise funds for the struggling black institution in Nashville, Tenn. "The Jubilee Singers were the first to really bring the slave hymns into public performance," Peckham explained. "It was a very spiritual song, and they turned it into art."
The nine-member choir, some of whom were former slaves, was often greeted with hostility when it first performed in small towns throughout the country. "At the time, a commonly held belief was that African-Americans could not be educated, so they were met with a lot of resistance and violence," Peckham said. "Our play is the story of that first tour and what they went through to make it happen – and the obstacles they encountered in a very segregated and racist nation that had very fresh feelings about slavery and (the Civil) War."
The story and music play to the strengths of Mosaic, Peckham believes. But its subject matter has been difficult for its young performers. "I didn't know how I felt about slavery until I got into this show," said Arielle Bryannah Bennett, 17, who attends the Detroit School of Arts. "All of the emotion that I had, it came out in this show. It was really hard to deal with that while being on stage."
Kaiya Nichelle Swanigan, 17, a senior at Detroit's Renaissance High School, agrees. "It's such a beautiful play, but our first rehearsals – it was like everybody had emotional breakdowns, because we were trying to put ourselves in the position of slavery and all the emotions that they must have been going through. By the end of rehearsal, we were all crying, in tears and sobbing. It made (slavery) real for us."
It's a concept, both actresses agree, few young people today fully comprehend. "We go to school and learn about slavery and what it did to people, but you never truly think about what those people were going through. You just think, 'Oh, they were getting beat because they were black' – but that's not all there was to it. (The play) made it very real to all of us," Swanigan said.
"At first when I read it I didn't quite understand it," Bennett admitted. "But when we started rehearsal, the tears started going. In became real."
Helping her young actors work through those emotions was a top priority for the show's director. "That was a real challenge," Peckham said. "I wanted us to go there – I think you have to in an emotional sense to understand the material – But I also didn't want to traumatize anyone, or send them home a mess."
So at the first rehearsal she warned them that an uncomfortable and unpleasant journey was ahead of them – but that the rehearsal process was a safe space in which to explore their feelings. "Everybody seems to be handling it well," Peckham said. "I think it's been a growth experience for all of us."
The actresses have learned another eye-opening lesson from the play, as well. "It shows how much education was valued back then, because it wasn't so easy to come by it," said Swanigan, who admits that she does not like going to school. "So I really have to appreciate what I'm doing. I'm so looking forward to college now – and that has a lot to do with this play."
Added Bennett, "I've gained inspiration to pursue my goals (from this show)."
And that's why Peckham encourages people to attend the show. "I think so much of our culture shows disrespect for education and disrespect for pushing yourself forward. There's a timeliness to this piece, and I think we're ready to hear this story and to embrace it."
'Sing Jubilee! The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers'
Mosaic Youth Theatre at the Detroit Film Theatre at the DIA, Detroit. Fri.-Sun., May 9-18. $10-$20. For information: 313-833-4005 or http://www.mosaicdetroit.org