The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout Unites Art and Social Justice Through an Ancestral Black Tradition | Playbill

Sponsored Content The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout Unites Art and Social Justice Through an Ancestral Black Tradition

A program of orchestral and choral works that reflect on racial violence and community healing will be presented at the Apollo on May 7.

Robert Minell

The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout is an evening three years and several centuries in the making. The multifaceted event—"a 3-year promissory note" as National Black Theatre's Executive Artistic Director (and The Gathering's director and creative conceiver) Jonathan McCrory describes it—is a musical, political, and spiritual collaboration between the Apollo Theater, American Composers Orchestra, and National Black Theatre. And it finally makes its way to Harlem's iconic Apollo stage on May 7.

The program's title may sound abstract, but its evocation of the vital Black tradition of the "Ring Shout" is perhaps the most concise way to capture the program's connective tissue. The Ring Shout is an African-American religious ritual, first practiced by enslaved Africans in the West Indies and United States. As generations of slaves continued to be born into white Christian society, the custom coalesced around a uniquely Black iteration of Christianity, and became an opportunity for worshipers to spontaneously sing, pray, stomp, and take up space in a world that gave them very little.

"What religion did was give Blacks a right to affirm their bodies because it said that I exist," explains Dr. Alonzo Johnson, a theologian, and Senior Pastor of the Universal Outreach Church of God in Christ in South Carolina. "Society said, you're not even fully human. But in evangelical Christianity, not only am I human—I can shout, I can feel, my body matters, my hands matter, my ideas matter. It wasn't just doctrine and creeds that you believed in. It was what you felt."

The Gathering will honor these religious roots through the emotive framework of the Ring Shout—embracing its bold declaration of self-possession in response to the continuing violence against Black bodies. The evening will not be a conventional Ring Shout (though audience members are encouraged to wear white per historical tradition), but its call-and-response principles will be reflected in the conversation between the program's musical selections.

At the center of this conversation will be Joel Thompson’s 2015 choral and orchestral piece, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed—a work ACO Artistic Director Derek Bermel envisioned bringing to the Apollo for its New York premiere before any other elements of this collaborative program were in place. The piece borrows the liturgical structure of Joseph Haydn's 18th century orchestral work The Seven Last Words of Christ. But once again, turning classical religion into a form of contemporary spiritual expression, Thompson's piece offers a meditation on the last words spoken by seven unarmed Black men killed at the hands of police (or whose murders were condoned by police, as was the case for Trayvon Martin who is the subject of the piece's second movement).

Seven Last Words of the Unarmed is a mournful, cathartic, call to action—and it is met inside the Collective Sonic Ring Shout by a series of existing as well as newly commissioned works that similarly fuse the realms of spirituality, art, and social justice: Abby Dobson will perform Say Her Name, her transcendent a cappella piece inspired by the #SayHerName campaign of the African American Policy Forum and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy, which brings awareness to the Black women and girls who have been victims of racist police violence. Courtney Bryan’s Sanctum, in turn, incorporates recordings of sermons, activists in Ferguson, Missouri following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, and the voice of Marlene Pinnock, who was beaten that same year by a California police officer—while Carlos Simon’s Amen! (making its New York premiere in its orchestral version) celebrates Simon's family's four generations within the Pentecostal church. Spaces for healing and remembrance are then built inside a collection of new works, including Tony winner Jason Michael Webb's commissioned piece I Am Loved (and Other Healing Affirmations); world-premiere orchestrations of Grace, Heaven and Benediction by Nona Hendryx; and My Name, A Reflection of Home by Toshi Reagon.

Video projections by Katherine Freer and poetry written and performed by activist and community organizer Mahogany L. Browne will also be folded into the program, anchored by a 70-member orchestra and 50-voice choir composed of both professional and amateur singers from African-American churches and choral ensembles throughout New York, including Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir, Broadway Inspirational Voices, Convent Avenue Baptist Church Choir, and Sing Harlem Choir.

Since the horrific murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the spring of 2020, there has been an international surge of support for movements like Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name that rallies people from communities of all kinds around the cause of racial justice. What the Apollo Theater, American Composers Orchestra, and National Black Theatre are doing through this collaboration is acknowledging the need for restoration within the Black community itself. "How could we bring a nexus of a safe container for the audience, and set the stage for whatever happens in the space to be a transformation for themselves but not necessarily for the rest of the world?" says McCrory about his vision for The Gathering. "That’s where the idea of Sonic Ring Shout came from…We are taking a legacy that is baked into my ideas as a Black person. Taking that blood memory and using it in this critical moment."

This "blood memory" is infused with centuries of religious, spiritual, familial, artistic, and political culture. And what better way to summon them all than through the jubilant ceremony of a Ring Shout. "The Ring Shout is historically an open space to grieve, awaken joy as a source of liberation, and use love as a form of resistance," says Apollo Executive Producer Kamilah Forbes. "The Gathering embodies that through all of the distinct and moving pieces of the evening, which at times may be emotionally difficult as we confront the horrors of injustice we’ve had to walk through. But The Gathering also allows us to lean into a journey of the spirit that will leave audiences feeling healed and rejuvenated for the future."

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