BWW Review: FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES at Opera Theatre St. Louis Captures Your Heart!
Another world premiere, another commissioned work, Fire Shut Up in My Bones has opened at Opera Theatre St. Louis. It is gorgeous! Deeply intimate and honest, the beautifully told story almost overshadows the music by the great jazz trumpeter Terrence Blanchard. (Blanchard composed the boxing opera, Champion, that premiered at OTSL six years ago.)
With an all-black cast, Fire Shut Up in My Bones was adapted from the best-seller memoir by Charles Blow. The beautiful libretto is by Kasi Lemmons, who has collaborated on several films with Blanchard. As with the work of most folks who have spent much time in films, this opera consists of many short scenes (43 I think). But here there is none of the choppiness that is characteristic of too many such movie-influenced shows. No, here the story flows beautifully, smoothly along assisted by a simple flexible set and deftly managed projections.
The voices in this production are superb, as we shall see.
Set designer Alan Moyer and video projection designer Greg Emetaz place us in the dreamlike memories of Charles Blow. Charles is driving through the Louisiana landscape and the memories of his childhood to impoverished little Gibsland where he was born. Vengeance is on his mind.
We meet his family--and his childhood world. His mother, Billie, cuts up chickens in a factory. She dreams of bettering herself. Billie chases her philandering husband off with a gun, and is left to support her five young boys, of which "Char'es Baby" is the youngest and best beloved. The whole community loves this sweet boy. He is indeed "a boy of peculiar grace".
But young Charles is a little out of place in this rough and tumble town. He's teased for not being tough like the other boys. And he yearns for intimacy--there's an oft-repeated plaintive refrain of "kiss me hug me" but even his harried mother can't fulfill that need.
And then, at seven years old, Char'es Baby experiences something that makes him "carry shame on his belt" for many years. A visiting cousin, Chester, shares a bedroom with Charles. Chester suggests a "game"--and he takes advantage of the child. Afterwards Char'es Baby is filled with deep shame--shame that he may actually have enjoyed the game. He so hungered for intimacy.
This is the seed of a sexual doubt that plagues Charles throughout his youth and college years. How can he ever be a real man if he still has these dreams? In a wonderful nightmare scene he is amid graceful shadowy-black dancers. He lovingly embraces first a man, then a woman, then a man, then a woman.
This is not a story about child abuse. It is about anguish caused by sexual doubt. And it is wonderfully free of any hint of the cliché and contention in which our politics of sexual identity are so awash. It is so bravely honest.
For Charles's pain he can find no anodyne. Sex with a woman is terrific, but it doesn't resolve that doubt. Even baptism can't wash away the stain of shame on his spirit. In Greta he finds true love and bares his soul to her only to be surpisingly, bitterly disappointed. It is this that triggers his rage against Chester and his resolve to kill him.
Bass-baritone Davóne Tines is a glory in the tour-de-force role of Charles. With the physical beauty of an athlete and an utterly Olympian voice he is perfect in the role.Soprano Julia Bullock, a St. Louis native, is similarly perfect in a tri-partite role-the dreamy Loneliness and Destiny which are Charles's constant companions, and the very real woman Greta, his one true love. Miss Bullock's voice is sublime, and she's a graceful, accomplished dancer.
The third spectacular voice we hear is that of Karen Slack as Charles's mother Billie. She finds much comedy as well as heartbreak in the tribulations of this fiercely spirited woman. Her participation in the wonderful shouting gospel scene is a high-point of the evening.
Young Jeremy Denis does lovely work as Char'es Baby. In many scenes the young and the old Charleses sing in unison as they relive memories. It's an affecting touch.
Other excellent work is done by the whole cast--family, neighbors, church-members, fraternity boys. I think Michael Redding is especially worthy of note as Charles's Uncle Paul. Rhadi Smith, Nathaniel Mahone, Najee Coleman and Jayden Denis burst with exuberant life as the young brothers.
The score is rich and varied, with a good dose of jazz, some blues, rollicking gospel, and much lovely, interesting, complex food for these great voices. Not too many "arias" and true melody is a little scarce. There are some programmatic passages of swelling strings that have a little movie feel--or a sense of those jazz stars who, in the '50's and '60's crossed some boundaries (and raised some hackles) by adding string sections on their recordings. But overall it's a great success.
Choreographer Sean Curran gives us much beauty and energy. Lighting, by Christopher Akerlind, deftly covers the many acting areas--and includes perfectly handled follow-spots which give crisp squares of light to accompany singers in the very fluidly changing scenes.
A hearty "Bravo" to conductor William Long and to stage director James Robinson who brings that entire community to such beautifully detailed life.
It's a wonderful story and a wonderful production. It's Fire Locked Up in My Bones at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. It continues through June 29.
End note: Charles Blow, in reality, married Greta. They have three sons. They are now separated. He did not kill his cousin Chester. His mother always told him that bad things happen, but sometimes "you just gotta leave it in the road." He is comfortably, publicly, quietly bi-sexual. He carries no banner, he presses no cause. His is the kind of story that might eventually bring sexual peace to America.