Historically neglected voices speak out in BATCO’s awe-inspiring ‘I, Too, Sing America’

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Georgia Pressley/Courtesy

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An interdisciplinary performance about artists of color, “I, Too, Sing America” by the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, or BATCO, at the Buriel Clay Theater last weekend was at once profoundly moving, beautiful, awe-inspiring and thought-provoking. Considering the palpable passion exuded throughout the show, it is only fitting that it was born out of an equally fierce dedication: a father’s love for his children.

Award-winning musical director Othello Jefferson first conceived of “I, Too, Sing America” while reading a poetry anthology of the same title to his two young daughters. “I wanted to find a way where they see themselves onstage, even if the media doesn’t do it,” Jefferson informed a rapt audience at Saturday’s matinee performance. “I want them to be able to grow up to use their voices to sing America.”

Jefferson’s “I, Too, Sing America” set a strong precedent for his daughters to sing out with confidence and self-assurance as girls of color. The performance featured a team of remarkable young choreographers, dancers, actors and vocalists who, under Jefferson’s guidance, reinterpreted pieces written by poets of color, from Langston Hughes to Alice Walker to Beyoncé. As explained by director and producer Jamie Yuen-Shore, the selected writings engage with many facets of the experience of a person of color in America: The pieces were chosen to address a history of oppression and racism, as well as a sense of ambition, pride and wonder.

Considering the amalgam of sources from which the creators behind “I, Too, Sing America” drew, it would have made sense if the performance had felt disjointed or bumpy. In reality, the performance came together seamlessly, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the beauty of not only the selected works, but also the compositions accompanying them and the acting, dancing and vocal prowess of the performers involved.

Jefferson opened with his self-written, self-composed “I, Too, Sing America: I,” a statement of strength and resilience in the face of difficulty that set the tone for the rest of the evening. For this opening number, all vocalists and dancers joined together in harmonious song, accompanied by Jefferson on piano. Not only did the piece exhibit Jefferson’s musical prowess, but it read as a statement of togetherness, connecting all of the performers onstage.

The 17 pieces that followed proved no less remarkable. In the group’s rendition of singer, songwriter and educator Ysaÿe M. Barnwell’s “Wanting Memories,” dancers Daniel Cancel, Isa Musni, Julie Ni and Nina Wu glided onstage, simultaneously gentle, weightless and strong in their movements. All of the production’s singers accompanied them onstage, Barnwell’s already breathtaking composition enchanting through the singers’ joined voices.

Other highlights included Jefferson’s composition of poet Folami Abiade’s “In Daddy’s Arms,” in which vocalists Anthone Jackson, Joshua Bowen, Marcus J. Paige and Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. sang of the strength and joy that they learned from their fathers, as Jaavon Martin danced fluidly onstage. The tenderness and vulnerability exhibited by those onstage set the piece apart, denoting the piece as a brave and sensitive homage to the power of Black fatherhood.

Though the performers excelled musically, pieces delivered as simple spoken poetry without accompaniment also hit their marks. In “I, Too,” BATCO Artistic Director and Co-Founder Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. performed Langston Hughes’ renowned poem. A professionally trained actor who has appeared on Broadway, Jackson Jr. delivered the piece with a palpable air of self-assurance and pride. A measured smile played upon his lips even as he spoke of the trials of living in a nonwhite body in America.

“I, Too, Sing America” concluded as it began — with all performers onstage, together, accompanied by Jefferson on piano in a final song: “I, Too, Sing America: II.” Afterward, each performer took an individual bow, the company receiving a well-deserved standing ovation from its enthused audience. Jefferson’s little girls themselves came onstage to greet their jubilant father, reminding the crowd that just like every performer who graced the stage that afternoon, they, too, are America.

Ryan Tuozzolo covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @_rtuo.