Tazewell Thompson’s bracing new a cappella musical “Jubilee” is about a choir, and it’s told in a nearly unbroken cascade of song. This premiere at Arena Stage is a tribute to the Jubilee Singers of Nashville’s historically black Fisk University, which was founded shortly after the Civil War, and the cast of 13 forms a tightly drilled unit, flowing through dozens of spirituals. The show tells its story by saturating you in its music.
This isn’t the usual musical theater treatment of character-driven book scenes leading to isolated songs. Instead, the ensemble — dressed in black, white and gray 19th-century costumes by Merrily Murray-Walsh — begins by gathering for a vocal warm-up. Before you know it, they’re bouncing through the inviting gospel tune “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight.” The harmonies are lush, and the rhythm is crisp.
Thompson has the ensemble rapidly swap just enough lines of narration to document the history of what we’re hearing and seeing in the high-ceilinged, crumbling old hall. (The set, in Arena’s proscenium Kreeger Theater, is by Donald Eastman, and mainly features wooden chairs in frequently rearranged patterns.) The goals are more collective than individual, at least in the first act, as the singers work to help establish the school.
A little narration goes a long way. When the group unearths artifacts of a slave yard on the school’s site, it launches a set of grim songs, with matching imagery projected on the back wall by Shawn Duan. Hardships and frustrations lead to slow, stately renditions of such familiar tunes as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
When it’s time to try to raise funds from white donors and “sing the money out of their pockets,” the material lightens, and the music perpetually presses ahead. The dozens of songs, with vocal arrangements by musical director Dianne Adams McDowell, amplify the bullet-point outlines we’re given as the singers establish the roots of the music, then manage to land national and international tours.
No one really steps out individually until late in the first act, when Aundi Marie Moore, playing Maggie Porter, begins to pout because the white choral director isn’t giving her a chance to solo. Moore gets the stage to herself for a moment and flaunts her operatic chops, and it’s only at this point that the story really begins to take a closer look at these real-life figures from the Jubilee Singers’ earliest years.
The show provides thumbnail biographies in an extended section during the second act, after a triumphant yet awkward performance before Queen Victoria (the awkwardness comes from the queen’s response). The underscoring for the scene is “Wade in the Water,” and the setting beautifully becomes a ship returning to America. Briefly, we see flirtation between Georgia Gordon (an amusingly smitten Zonya Love) and Frederick Loudin (a smooth Sean-Maurice Lynch), and hear quick backstories from Jennie Jackson (a slightly haunted Joy Jones), whose mother told her that her voice would do good in the world, and Edmund Watkins (Jaysen Wright), who as a runaway kid once spent months hiding under a schoolhouse. Eventually, we hear from everybody.
The evenly balanced cast includes Shaleah Adkisson, Lisa Arrindell, V. Savoy McIlwain, Simone Paulwell, Travis Pratt, Katherine Alexis Thomas, Bueka Uwemedimo and Greg Watkins, all singing close harmonies and acting together with such an assured touch that you can feel the audience listening with exceptional attentiveness. From the middle of the orchestra, at least, your ears may be convinced that the performers are entirely unamplified, though apparently they get a subtle boost from Fabian Obispo’s sound design. (The show canceled more than a week’s worth of performances earlier this month due to a cast member’s vocal health.)
That keen, supple musicality and the strength-in-numbers ensemble style make the evening a joy. Thompson’s format vividly brings out the traditions the Jubilee Singers preserved and celebrated, and gradually gives you an idea of the people who made it.
Jubilee, written and directed by Tazewell Thompson. Lights, Robert Wierzel. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through June 9 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. $41-$125. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org.