“‘Treemonisha’ is a gem of an opera by one of America’s most treasured composers, Scott Joplin,” says Michael Bobbitt, who is directing the Washington Savoyards’ production — a first in the D.C. area for more than 30 years.
Bobbitt, who is gay and lives with his partner and their son in Glen Echo, is also the producing artistic director of Adventure theatre, the D.C. area’s longest running children’s theatre.
Joplin is arguably America’s greatest black composer. Joplin died forgotten at age 49 in 1916 of advanced-syphilis dementia in a mental hospital and was never able to see his opera performed, due to Jim Crow laws blocking his path as a black musician.
Joplin, dubbed the “king of ragtime” during the heyday of that distinctive genre, became popular again after Joplin rags were the soundtrack for the 1973 hit film “The Sting.” Ragtime was a toe-tapping syncopated “ragged-time” music often associated with the red-light-district saloons and bordellos where Joplin himself often played.
Yes, that Scott Joplin. Well, brilliant though he was as a composer of ragtime, Joplin also wrote two operas, one of them a work of unalloyed genius — “Treemonisha” — a work of folk Americana at least the artistic equal of, say, Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” that languished unperformed until 1972 when finally it was produced in Atlanta after a new score was commissioned, since Joplin’s own original orchestration had long since been lost.
“One could arguably say that Scott Joplin changed the landscape of American music and influenced what modern music is today,” says Bobbitt. “That music is vast and various, but extremely accessible and joyous.”
Only here through March 7, the Bobbitt-helmed production is on stage at the splendid Atlas Performing Arts Center, the jewel in the crown of D.C.’s newest arts venue on H Street, N.E. Break off significant social engagements if you must, but get thee to the Atlas stage and see and hear the wonder of “Treemonisha” and then spread the word: this is a must-see musical triumph, easily earning 6 stars out of a possible 4.
Bobbitt says, “Because the story deals with superstition, belief, and magic, we decided to lean toward a slightly fantastic place” in the sets and costumes, especially the wonder of a great tree that forms the towering backdrop above the wooded village in post-Civil War Louisiana bayou country where the young girl, the eponymous Treemonisha, lives and risks death but eventually leads her people to freedom from superstition.
Our young heroine, played to pert perfection and with marvelous girlish pipes of a soaring soprano by Joanna Marie Ford, “enjoys the wonders of reading and tries to spread that love throughout her community,” says Bobbitt. But unfortunately she clashes with local “conjurors,” magicians peddling bags of luck to ward off evil, who see the young girl with her book-reading, should it spread throughout the community, as a threat to their livelihoods. Enter conflict. And cue the forces of wicked magicians who conspire to kidnap her and throw her into a nest of poisonous snakes.
Standing beside her, however, are protectors — her “parent” figures, the incomparable contralto of Marilyn Moore playing Monisha, and the equally talented Darry Winston, as her doting Uncle Ned, who even has a soft-shoe up his sleeve when the stage shifts from rapturous music to a kaleidoscope of dancers — and even Uncle Ned can keep time to the music! Moore comes to this role with her acting chops as Bess in “Porgy and Bess” with the New York City Opera and countless other roles in opera from Violetta in “La Traviata” to Mimi in “LaBoheme.” Moore is also a faculty member at the Levine School of music and at Delaware State University.
Winston, meanwhile, has his own roots deep in such baritone roles as Lucas in “The Student Prince” on Broadway and regionally in “Madame Butterfly” and “Cosi fan tutti” and perhaps most of all his signature Wagnerian roles in the Ring Cycle. And of course who can forget his endless offstage patter about the wonders of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald?
As for Ford, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany and studied at the Lyric Opera Studio of Weimar where she performed as Despina in Mozart’s “Cos fan tutti.” She has also toured as a soloist with the Morgan State University Choir in Ghana and is often a featured singer throughout the Maryland/D.C. area. Her career will soar even higher after “Treemonisha.”
The remainder of the diverse cast includes other standouts, and they all blend into a stirring rendition of vocal command and eye-dazzling footwork in this true American classic, a folk opera about freedom, a song cycle about the liberation of a people through community values and the doors opened through education.
In Bobbitt’s words, “we took the “opportunity to have fun with this opera,” in which he accents its fantasy elements where what he calls “good and love triumph over evil.” And the audience on opening night had so much infectious fun that they broke into rousing cheers at the curtain call. You will, too.
Be aware that “Treemonisha” is only one ornament on this late-winter tannenbaum of “Intersections: A New America Arts Festival” which runs through March 7 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE.
Performances of “Treemonisha” continue on Friday and Saturday, March 5 and 6 at 8 p.m., and Sunday March 7 at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $10-$40.
Tickets for all Atlas Performing Arts Center offerings during “Intersections” are available at the Atlas box office: 202-399-7993, x2, and at www.intersectionsdc.org.
A few samples of the other multi-media offerings during Intersections:
• a concert by legendary folk singer and activist Tom Chapin ($20, 7:30 p.m. Sunday March 7)
• a community open-reading of the African-American classic play “A Raisin in the Sun,” hosted by DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which is also in fact staging the show as its next production (free, 4:30 p.m. Saturday, March 6)
• on-site building pieces of a high-flying mobile to be set balanced in mid-air by artist Kevin Reese (free, 2 p.m. Saturday, March 6)
• Dance Discovery, an explosion of dance styles from D.C.’s award-winning Joy of Motion Dance Center (5 p.m. on Saturday, March 6)
For a complete listing of all events times and charges if any go to www.intersectionsdc.org. And then plan your weekend around Intersections, which is bound to intersect its multi-media message of art and community-building right into your soul.