‘Stirring the Waters Across America’ at The REACH is a powerful musical exploration of resistance to racism

Electrifying. Awakening. These are words to describe the heart-rending workshop presentation of Stirring the Waters Across America performed at Studio K at The REACH. To call it anything less would be just plain wrong.  

‘Stirring the Waters Across America’ Creator/Composer Nolan Williams, Jr. Photo by Jermoni Dowd, courtesy of NEWorks Productions.

With its focus on the Civil Rights Movement in America over the past decades, Stirring the Waters Across America was a theatrical concert that vigorously and clearly illuminated the atrocious past in this country’s centuries-old struggles with race. 

Produced by NEWorks Productions and Edgewood Ventures and performed in a development staging, Stirring the Waters was a seamless melding of the vivid capacity of music, dance, singing, and projections to be prophets carrying a message. In this case, a message of resistance and action to overcome the direst of circumstances. And to never forget the past as we look to the future. 

The still-in-development Stirring the Waters was conceived, composed, and musically directed by songwriter and musicologist Nolan Williams Jr. who was recently awarded a Social Impact Residency at The Kennedy Center.  

The workshop was robustly directed by DC theater veteran Eric Ruffin who most recently directed Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine at the Mosaic Theatre Company.

At the REACH workshop of Stirring the Waters, an impressive five-member live band included Paul Byssainthe, Jr., piano; Daniel Hall, bass guitar; Kevin “Stixx” Marshall, set percussion; Aaron Broadus, fuglehorn; and Jalen Frances, saxophone. They played a potent mixture of musical tunes and rhythms for twelve numbers.

‘Stirring the Waters Across America’ cast member Taylor Milton stirs audience with her vocal lead on “I’ve Got a Right To Vote.” Photo by Jermoni Dowd, courtesy of NEWorks Productions.

Kiana Ebone’s choreography was visually uplifting with arms reaching to Heaven in righteous strength and praise. The overall dancing was visually representative not just of the music but of the story being told. The percussive nature of some choreography and movements were completely awesome as the sound took over Studio K.

The dozen musical numbers and choreography included pieces that brought the audience to issues such as the murder of Emmett Till; the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery March; lunch counter sit-ins; the struggle for voting rights; and events in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life including his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his final speech delivered the night before his assassination. 

Some of the songs performed were adapted by Williams from old Negro spirituals (such as “Wade in the Water”), others were adapted from 1960’s Freedom Rider songs, while several were adapted from works from the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Some were warmly spiritual such as “Stirring the Water” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Others had a defiant percussive rhythm such as “I’ve Got a Right to Vote,” and several were haunting in the message conveyed such as “Emmet Till” and “The Promised Land.”

A variety of musical numbers were scenes performed with a text narrative by a diverse cast of fourteen. There were twelve singers /actors whose voices whether in solo or in harmony were full of fire and grace. They brought feelings to the words as they looked deeply into audience members’ eyes while moving about the small space in a group or standing tall in a solo. There were also two dancers who illuminated a song through movement.

There were also several scenes well connected to current events in America. Stirring the Water Across America not only illuminated the past in this country’s struggles with race but to more recent days in Ferguson as well as the death of Trayvon Martin.  

Without spoiling that moment for others who I hope will take in Stirring the Waters, one scene began with a haunting projected image of Emmett Till that was then connected to a young man of more recent times. The projections design was by Jon-Sesrie Goff with additional projections by Kadesh DuBose.

‘Stirring the Waters Across America’ cast member Roy Patten, Jr. leads production finale, “The Promised Land” (pictured in background, l-r: Candace Potts, Nikolai Granados, Daniel Smith, Aileen Mitchener, Christian Harward). Photo by Jermoni Dowd, courtesy of NEWorks Productions.

“This production is what the REACH at The Kennedy Center is all about. It’s an opportunity to see works in progress,” said Williams in an interview with DCMTA. If this is a foreshadowing of what the REACH is intended to be. It’s a great sign of things to come.”

At the workshop presentation itself, Williams announced that Stirring the Waters Across America will begin a national tour in early 2020.

“The plan is to tour this timely project as a gift to the nation,” said Williams at the workshop. “We hope it will garner the kind of financial and community support needed to bring it to cities around the country and have a profound impact on those communities…It will be a tool to go into diverse communities around the country and a catalyst for convening conversations on social justice and race.”

Williams added, “When you look at what’s happening in our times and compare it with 50 years ago, there are too many parallels, which says we have either woefully or willfully forgotten lessons that we have learned as a nation. That’s the fierce urgency of now in terms of this kind of a project: to remind people what we’ve been through, what we’ve learned, and to make connections between then and now.”

“We are saying to the nation, through this production, we’ve been down this road before, and it’s not going to end well.  We need to use what we have learned to stir the waters. For me, it’s with this music…It’s a good time to remind people of these moments and the lessons we should learn from them,” noted Williams.

With the exquisitely bold and utterly holy Stirring the Waters Across America, Williams and his outstanding team did just that. Do keep an eye out for it.

Running time: About 90 minutes with no intermission.

There was an interactive 30-minute post-show discussion led by Dr. Robert Paterson, Professor of African American Studies, Georgetown University.

Stirring the Waters Across America was performed by NEWorks Productions in a developmental workshop on Sunday, October 27, 2019, at Studio K, The REACH, The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC. More information about NEWorks Productions can be found online.

Stirring the Water Across America cast members at the REACH workshop:

Teriauna Duran, Kiana, Ebone, Nikolai Granados, Christian Harward, Taylor Milton, Aileen Mitchener, Tyesha Nance, Roy Patten, Jr., Candace Potts, Isaiah Reed, Daniel Smith, Darrick Speller, Kimberly Thevenin, and Kevin Thorne. 


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