Spine: ‘Appomattox’ Cracks the Color Line at The Kennedy Center

Appomattox, the world premiere opera now playing at The Kennedy Center Opera House in a new production by the Washington National Opera, tackles that most epic of America’s sins, “the color line.”

And we tremble at the implications.

The producers of Appomattox could not have foreseen the horror of recent events in Paris, Beirut, over the Sinai, and they surely were not trying to draw an equivalence between any two wars.

Tom Fox (Abraham Lincoln). Photo by Scott Suchman.
Tom Fox (Abraham Lincoln). Photo by Scott Suchman.

The Civil War is that single great failure in American democracy (no words, no compromises, no middle ground possible; thus, WAR, leaving 750,000 dead and over 400,000 wounded).

It is a war that ended in the emancipation of African Americans, but was soon followed by the assassination of Lincoln and, then, Southern apartheid, American style.

It is a war that then witnessed a century later The Civil Rights Movement, erupting in the 1950s, but blossoming with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, before then being cut short with another assassination, this time of Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is a war that has left us with today.

However, as opera’s form is wont to do, Appomattox‘s finely executed epic sweep and its soaring presentation of the clash between ideologies of hate and peoples yearning to live free reaches beyond its narrative’s specifics.

Soloman Howard (Martin Luther King Jr.). Photo by Scott Suchman.
Soloman Howard (Martin Luther King Jr.). Photo by Scott Suchman.

With music by Philip Glass and libretto by Christopher Hampton, Appomattox pulls no punches with its indictment of the deep Southern soul.

Act 1, set at the end of the Civil War, serves as a set up to its presentation of the 1960s and the struggle for the vote amid the terror of lynchings, brutal murders, and bombings.

If Appomattox comes across as a little too cerebral during Act 1, its Act 2 pops with emotion, as well as comedy, as Tom Fox delivers a President Lyndon B. Johnson for the ages.

Act 1 may nibble at the highbrow brand that is Opera; Act 2 takes a barracuda bite with boils on butts and an oft repeated “N” word, an “N” word that solidifies the production’s Southern brand.

Because of its historical arc, Appomattox points to a future of violence, as the cancer that inspired mass enslavement, then bloody civil war, then Jim Crow and the KKK, does not simply vanish like a child’s belief in Santa.

Tom Fox (Abraham Lincoln) and the cast of 'Appomattox.' Photo by Scott Suchman.
Tom Fox (Abraham Lincoln) and the cast of ‘Appomattox.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

The color line is dug, not in sand, but in granite and a blast as powerful as the Civil War was not enough to demolish it.

The chilling final scene of Appomattox echoes like a warning: the struggle continues.

Equally true, however, is the hope filled beauty of the opera’s final song, a chorus of women exulting a future of new possibilities.

And it is on those new possibilities that we must cling; for the terror we dread from abroad is seemingly equaled only by the terror we breed at home.

The gun is omnipresent; its growling pops at movie theatres, streetside cafes, elementary schools, bible studies, concert venues, college campuses, and it makes no difference from where the extremist violence comes–a maniacal supremacism, a mental illness, an apocalyptic religious fanaticism, or an absolute power corrupting absolutely.

Our lives are lived in dread, no matter how many politicians tell us to go on shopping.

Appomattox reminds us all that the fight for liberty is eternal; there are no “mission accomplished” signs awaiting our earnest efforts. There is only the next hill in the struggle, and the small ground we hope to hold.

Running Time: Approximately 3 hours, with one 25-minute intermission.

The cast of 'Appomattox.' Photo by Scott Schulman.
The cast of ‘Appomattox.’ Photo by Scott Schulman.

Appomatox plays through November 22, 2015 at Washington National Opera performing in The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

David Friscic reviews ‘Appomattox’ on DCMetroTheaterArts.

‘Dangereuse’: ‘Appomattox’ at The Kennedy Center reviewed by Sophia Howes.

Magic Time! ‘Appomattox’ at Washington National Opera by John Stoltenberg.


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