Bold, brash ‘Place’ by Ted Hearne and Saul Williams asserts itself in Zellerbach

Photo of Place performance
Ted Hearne/Courtesy

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It is nearly impossible to be apolitical in the United States. By virtue of this country, each act that one takes can be traced back to the institutions of power in place, and the question coils to wonder what are the forces at play. On March 12, the curious compositions of Ted Hearne married poet Saul Williams’ words in a phantasmagorical presentation of that very idea: What makes a place? A border, a culture, a people, a person? And how can places be claimed on a land so divided in all those ways? 

With six vocalists and an instrumental ensemble, “Place” serves as a conversation between two artists, a white composer and a Black poet, as they visually and musically discuss the individual’s role in gentrification, race relations and activism. Beginning from the perspective of Hearne himself, portrayed on stage by vocalist Steven Bradshaw, the overarching narrative luxuriates in self-sympathizing white guilt before diverging into harsher waters as five singers of color offer a much-desired wake-up call. 

Visually, “Place” was imbued with impermanence and fluidity, paralleling the idea of place captured by the production. The Zellerbach stage was minimally staged, granting the characters the ability to shape the scene as they saw fit, breaking from their position near the microphones to interact directly with the orchestra or even Hearne as he conducted from his podium. 

In the opening number “Balloons,” Bradshaw’s Hearne stood center stage surrounded by stacks of cardboard boxes, wailing autotuned microtonals as black-and-white footage of a boy and his father play on a screen overhead. Hearne deconstructs and pokes fun at his artistic ego, looking upon his self indulgence with a critical eye as he pokes fun at his on stage counterpart with canned applause and a bored gaze from the other singers. 

“Maps (Appropriation)” begins with singer Josephine Lee belting “He comforts himself under his breath” before delving into the words of James Baldwin discussing what is coined “the negro problem” in a song called “Breakup Letter.” The harmonies are soul-stirring and unpredictable, yet incredibly concise. Even as the melody undulates, there are no gaps as all six singers’ voices reverberate into one.  

“Guilt,” sung entirely by Bradshaw, closes out the first part of the performance as audience members are left to wonder if the show is asking for their sympathy. That bubble pops quickly as singer SOL RUIZ, who had been creeping around the stage with a handheld flashlight, offers him faux sympathy with sarcastic coos and tongue clicks. The tone shifts quickly as Ted is driven from the stage when the five singers of color take hold of the show with overlapping cries of “What about my son?”

Where the first act had been suffocating in its sentimentality, the second is fiery and raw. For the most part, the stools and mic stands that tied down the singers are abandoned as the performers are given the free will to wander around the stage and interact with all of its aspects. By including the orchestra on stage, Hearne does not allow himself to be fully removed from the conversation.

 In “A Thought,” a recording of Williams’ voice plays alongside the bold timbre of Ayana Woods before she walks right to Hearne and messes with his piano and autotune software. The composer is not granted the ability to remain completely detached from his own role in the narrative. This careful coalescence of the two spaces, acted performance and musical conducting, raises questions of control and self-ownership. 

Often using the chorus like instruments themselves, Hearne instructs the singers of color to cover their mouths to achieve certain sounds. An auditory and poetic choice, every facet of “Place” drips with implications of power and exactly who holds it. 

With overwhelming complexities, Williams and Hearne managed to capture the pain and confusion coupled with racial dynamics in America. The instrumentation is chaotic, almost biting at times, with a layered libretto that begs for interpretation. Oozing with a careful artistry that invites its viewer to dig deep, “Place” is something entirely new — demanding permanent residency in the discourse of tomorrow.

Contact Afton Okwu at [email protected].