Timing is everything and unfortunately, my timing on this is pretty bad. I’m writing to recommend to you At the River I Stand, a live-streamed reading of a new musical drama produced by TheaterWorks in Hartford. My timing is bad because the last day on which the production was available online was Saturday, October 10. You can see it only if you are a TheaterWorks subscriber and then only before the end of October.
This production was a reading of a musical drama that’s in the process of being written, edited, and reworked into a full-fledged stage production. The actual stage production, if it ever happens, likely will be different in several ways, as the artists creating the show modify it in response to preliminary work like this.
As far as I’m concerned, they’re done. Not in the sense that the show is ready for Broadway – I’m sure a lot of work and revisions will be necessary in order to stage it. I believe they’re done because the artists already have created a fascinating and moving show, without staging it. They made a movie, sort of, about a reading, a staged reading, of a play about 1968. The actors don’t move around the stage, but they definitely are acting. It’s a work of art in its own right.
Why did I enjoy it so much? Start with the music. This is a story about five Black musicians at different points in their careers, and with different views on race and racism, coming together to play a benefit concert in Memphis in 1968. Each of the five has signature songs they perform, with varying amounts of instrumental and vocal backup. Gospel and the blues waft through the entire production, with elements of rap and hip-hop. The music is excellent, Broadway quality song-writing, with intricate lyrics and moving melodies.
The music is without question identifiably Black music, but somehow it’s universal, too. The music just grabs you and pulls you through the show. Every time the music started, I was happy.
I liked the way it was produced. Sometimes the “film” is grainy, with distracting visual elements, all done to make it appear to be a documentary created from film first shot in 1968. It’s not overdone; it just creates a mood. All you ever see of the actors is head shots, but the actors’ movements within the frame of the screen add drama and meaning to what they say and sing. Between the movements, the facial expressions, and the singing, it’s way more than 90 minutes of talking heads. It’s well produced.
I liked the show because of the performers. Are these actors singing, or are they singers acting? All I could tell was that there was a lot of talent putting this show on. They portrayed their characters well, they were believable. They had fun. They brought energy to conversations, energy that’s more easily displayed on stage. These actors were speaking into the camera, but I believed they were having real conversations with other, off-screen characters.
Then there’s the intimacy of the small-screen presentation. At times this was an extended Zoom call, with the speaker looking directly at me. It was personal; I could feel their joy and their pain, because it was in my face, literally. Sometimes I felt I was in the same room with and being addressed directly by the person on the screen. Occasionally, what they said made me uncomfortable, but I I didn’t want to escape, because this was so personal. These were human beings from 1968, right in front of me, sharing their humanity. And simultaneously, these were Black actors in 2020, right in front of me, demonstrating their remarkable talents.
I liked At the River I Stand because it wasn’t a cliché. At first I thought it was going to be a some kind of feel-good Black revival show, primarily for a Black audience, with plenty of inside jokes that went over my head. No, not that. Then I started thinking it was going to be a preachy lecture to white people about how they should feel sorry for Blacks and support them in their times of trouble. No, not really that, although it does have some powerful messages for white people.
The powerful message for white people is that color doesn’t matter. The people telling those stories and singing those songs are just people. Not Black people, just people. Black stories and Black songs and Black people, yes, but it doesn’t matter; it almost doesn’t mean anything to say “Black.” These are just people, beautiful people telling their touching stories and singing their songs for all of us to hear.
And yet, simultaneously, the show speaks to Black people, too. I’m not Black, so I’m way out of my league here, but it seemed to me that the stories and music resonate with Black people for the obvious reason that these are their stories and music, stories and music from their histories.
Some of the characters tell stories about their experiences in the world, and their parents’ experiences. They paint pictures of the lives of real people, their struggles, their oppression. These aren’t slave tales; these are the stories of people in the Depression, people in World War II, people in the 50s, Black people whose lives are infused with the sorrow of generations. Sometimes funny, sometimes painful, sometimes poignant, these are the stories about people, people you can understand, people you can laugh with, and people you can care about. These are people telling their stories and learning to appreciate, respect, and accept the differences among them. This is a show that speaks sometimes to one of us, then to another, and yet always to all of us.
To be completely honest about it, for an hour and a half, it seemed I could feel what it’s like to be Black in America. When the show ended, I went back to feeling white. We all understand that being white in America is a better deal than being Black; this show somehow let me feel the difference.
Did I mention that I liked the play? Every little bit about it.
Experiences strike different people differently, and maybe if you see At the River I Stand you will come away less impressed than I. All I know is that it worked for me. Still, if you get a chance to see it, I guarantee you’ll enjoy it more than that random Netflix movie you clicked on last night.