by Steven Pisano
(All photos by Steven Pisano.)
Last week, BAM’s Harvey Theater presented Steel Hammer, a theatrical working of Pulitzer Prize-winning Julia Wolfe’s 2009 cantata exploring the African-American folk hero John Henry, the “steel-driving man” of the post-Civil War American railroad.
Reimagining a work of art music as theater meant creating all the stage business from scratch. The six performers from the SITI Company--Akiko Aizawa, Eric Berryman, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Gian-Murray Gianino, Barney O'Hanlon, and Stephen Duff Webber--under the direction of Anne Bogart, were uniformly excellent. But the material by four playwrights was not at the same high level as Wolfe’s music. One exception was a tour-de-force soliloquy written by Carl Hancock Rux and performed by Ms. Chevannes, recounting a chance encounter with the steel hammer-wielding John Henry by a migrant named Mamie.
Eric Berryman as the folk hero John Henry gave a tireless and noble performance as the embodiment of the myth. Asked to run dozens of times around the circular platform on stage, he ended up dripping sweat and fighting for breath, much like a railroad worker expended from digging tunnels through mountains.
Historians say that there probably was a real man the John Henry legend was based on, or there may have been multiple men. But like so many myths that morph over time, nobody agrees on much else except that at least one of them may have been named John Henry.
In “Characteristics” we are told he may have been tall, he may have been small. He may have been young, he may have been old. He may have been a released convict. He may have come from New Jersey or Tennessee or West Virginia. “The States” lists the names of eleven places he may have hailed from, and who were proud to claim him.
At the end of the evening, despite the staging, it was still Julia Wolfe’s magnificently inspiring music that commanded the audience’s attention during the nearly 2-hour intermissionless show. (You can listen to the full score on Wolfe’s website.)
Like her 2015 Pulitzer winner, Anthracite Fields, about coal mining in Pennsylvania, Wolfe is fascinated by themes of Americana. She utilizes the repetitive structures of Minimalist music, but wedded sometimes to more sinewy rock riffs to create always innovative new music that sparks and excites.
And there could be no better choice to play such music than the always exemplary Bang on a Can All Stars, who first performed the work in concert form back in 2009. Special mention must go to Mark Stewart who, with his flowing mane of frizzy white hair tied at the back also looked the part of a 19th-century musician. During the piece "Polly Ann" he exchanged his seat with the band to sit on stage with the actors in a circle of old carved chairs, tapping the beat out with his feet like folk clogging, while clarinetist Ken Thomson and the actors thumped their bodies with their hands for rhythm.
The songs were not sung by the actors but by a trio of ethereal voices—Emily Eagan, Katie Geissinger, and Molly Quinn. In high Appalachian-style harmonies, they sang the sometimes looping, sometimes pulse-quickening art songs with crystalline clarity.
Actors, singers, and musicians from Steel Hammer in a "family portrait" after the dress rehearsal.