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Notes from the Watch Night Creative Team

From Bill T. Jones, Co-Conceiver, Director, and Choreographer

Notes to myself…

Forget the contributions of each of my collaborators, designers, and many others who have labored to give life to this event.
Create an event too easily digested in its desire to succeed by standards not of my making.
Be cowed by the city and this theater site’s precarious history in our fractious era.
Be oppressed by personal fear and anger.
Try to heal the world in this event.
Ignore the moment to moment revelations of the rehearsal process, the audience’s experience, and my own personal hungers and limitations.
Ignore dissonance between the characters.
Ignore each character’s worldview, individual psychological motivations that give them dimension and substance.
Ignore the fact that the characters are created and serve a narrative we, the creators, have devised.
Be cowed by the technology at our disposal nor the risks inherent in relying on it.
Attempt to be understood by all viewers and stake holders.
Forget to dream, be vulnerable, responsive, and hopeful!

Acknowledge the privilege of this opportunity and the platform provided by the Perelman Performing Arts Center in its Inaugural Season.
Acknowledge this event is informed by real tragedies, real people, and real consequences.
Create an event that offers many points of view/vantage points.
Explore the potential of this new historic theater, built on contested land and a site of trauma.
Exploit the implicit dissonance between Marc Bamuthi’s writing and Tamar-kali’s music.
Use the individuality of each performer: gender, race, body shape, temperament, personal abilities, and limitations.
Challenge my own taste and notions of abstraction and movement.
Attempt to “see this event” through the eyes of many people—different from myself and very much like me.
Stay alert, grateful, and hungry for joy!

From Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Co-Conceiver, Librettist

I, too, swelled with the weight of Obama’s pleading, resilient, rendition of “Amazing Grace”… Do you remember? Five days earlier, a young white supremacist walked into a prayer meeting in Charleston, sat among those in bible study on an ordinary Wednesday night, and then proceeded to use 88 bullets to kill nine humans in the sanctuary where they delivered themselves to their maker. He ran for a few hours, was peacefully captured, compassionately fed, and then was remitted to the law. Less than 48 hours later, while being arraigned in court, congregants of that defiled sanctuary openly forgave him. By Sunday, the congregants returned to the church for service. Two days after that, the President eulogized the fallen, uplifting that act of grace, invoking an American timeline filled with the memory of those who pressed on…

But what of those who were emotionally frozen in the traumatic aftermath? Of those who had both a crisis OF faith, and a crisis AT faith, who were asked to pray in a place with blood on the walls? What of the linkages between a boy born white in the south and a man borne with whiteness as sword to slay an observant Jewish community in Pittsburgh? What about all of us, unyielding in our reach for American promise who might be able to forgive, but won’t ever, ever forget?…

I wrote the libretto for Watch Night as a speculative document that asks how our democracy survives if we don’t learn how to forgive. Or, perhaps more specifically, how our democracy survives if we forgive the wrong people. Watch Night was conceived as an opera, but in its body, it harbors the interdisciplinary nature of its hip-hop generation librettist. It doesn’t code “switch”, it code “surfs” between classical vernaculars, contemporary inquiries, and a literary lineage that doesn’t really distinguish between King James and Toni Morrison when singing the Song of Solomon. Watch Night isn’t a documentary of what happened that April evening in Charleston, or that autumn afternoon in Pittsburgh. It does, however, corner a fictional assembly of characters who are loaded with thoughts and prayers about the landscape of American rage and race. Watch Night remembers the amazing grace at ground zero, and seals the open wound with culture. In a moment of ever shortening American memory, Watch Night is a sonically explosive round of American hope that refuses to forget…

From Tamar-kali, Composer

The human body, as a vessel for sacred sound, has been a cornerstone of praise and worship in the Judaic and African American Christian traditions. From revered ‘Hazzans’ to genius gospel soloists, the voice transmits on a spiritual frequency that transforms religious text and oral history into lived experience linking the past to the present and connecting generations of congregants in temples and churches across time.

My earliest experiences with classical music trace back to my Catholic childhood. I can recall hearing the soaring refrains of the choir floating up into vaulted cathedral ceilings like the wisps of smoke emanating from a swaying censer. Gregorian chants, Marian hymns, Beethoven, Handel; I was enraptured by these sounds and how they made me feel.

It was in this context that I became familiar with the theoretical aspects of Western music, but it was the oral tradition of my ancestors that had blessed me with the ears to hear and listen. I had been surrounded by melody, harmony, and rhythm since before I was born; in the funk that my Daddy played on his bass, the jazz that he whistled around the house, the blues my mama loved and the spirituals that their elders hummed.

My seat at this artistic table came with challenges and great responsibility. It is rare that a single project might require an artist to pull from every drop of water in the well that has nourished them but Watch Night came close and for that, I am grateful.

From Lauren Whitehead, Dramaturg

Every massacre has its moment. In the aftermath of every staggering act of violence we are inundated, for a time, with outrage and rallying cries, marches and memorials, public lament and lengthy speeches and great groanings of grief. And then, as is our way, we metabolize the grotesque. We will ourselves into movie theaters, send our children into schools again. We weep, we wail and then we walk on.

What our show is attempting to do is to ask “what if?” What if we were unsatisfied by platitudes of forgiveness and forgetting? What if instead of moving on, we pointed our rage and discontent in a different direction?

When we visited with the survivors in Charleston and in Pittsburgh, when we asked, quite blankly, why choose faith in the face of horror? each of them had a different answer, a different reason for leaning on the incomprehensible in the face of the incomprehensible. Each of them was animated by their belief and in their believing, found the will to survive. I am moved by all the ways people learn to survive.

Maybe you won’t choose Shayla’s way or Josh’s way. Maybe you won’t turn to God or politicians. Maybe you won’t sing or dance or write your way out of tragedy — these are our ways, imperfect and insufficient, perhaps, but ours nonetheless. Maybe we won’t live to see the end of American violence, but I hope we keep bearing witness, keep asking questions, keep finding ways to survive this and every moment with our hearts, somehow, still open.