The parallels between the Israelites’ struggle for freedom and Black Americans’ struggle for freedom are undeniable and resonant. The retelling of one event in the history of the Israelites’ struggle, and its reverberations in the ongoing struggle by Black Americans for the space to exist as fully human beings, is the subject of The Ordering of Moses — the 1932 oratorio by R. Nathaniel Dett — which is being presented by IN Series opera company.
If you have seen the movie The Ten Commandments, you know the plot. The Israelites are oppressed by the Pharoah-led Egyptians, and they cry out to God for relief. Through a bush that is on fire but which never seems to be consumed, God calls to Moses, an Israelite who has been raised under Pharaoh’s roof, to confront Pharaoh and demand that he free the Israelites. Moses, who has already killed one Egyptian in defense of one of his people, and whose speech is awkward, protests his unfitness for the call. God convinces him otherwise. Moses, supported by divine forces, leads the Israelites through the Red Sea to safety, whereas the Egyptians are covered by the sea and die in their pursuit of the fleeing Israelites. Upon reaching the other shore and seeing their pursuers die, the Israelites, led by Moses’ prophetess-sister Miriam, proceed to celebrate their deliverance.
The Ordering of Moses receives a highly immersive staging here, but does not go so far as to bring the audience on stage, as Artistic Director Timothy Nelson’s treatment of L’Enfance du Christ did. Here, the audience is surrounded by the movement of the performers and the sound.
Entering from both sides of the pulpit at Mount Vernon Square United Methodist Church, the chorus filled the dais, while the featured singer-actors used the aisles for the entrances. Performers made entrances and exits through the audience and walking along narrow platforms between pews. Two of the biggest payoffs from this staging came in the presentation of the parting of the Red Sea and the arrival of the Israelites to the far side of the sea.
I don’t usually like liturgical dance. But Shawna J. Williams’ choreography managed to maintain the integrity of the liturgical dance form in her portrayal of the burning bush, while embedding that image with the larger, mythic movement of the oratorio. In this staging, the burning bush, embodied as a feminine presence, didn’t disappear from our awareness after Moses descended from the mountain. Instead, she becomes one of several spirit-propelled entities that accompany Moses through his unlikely and transparently impossible journey of crossing the Red Sea.
In every movie that I have seen of the story of Moses, the parting of the Red Sea is always a special-effects high point that transfixes the audience. It is the same in this IN Series staging. When the audience entered the sanctuary where the production was staged, they were directed to seating in pews on the far left or the far right sides of the sanctuary. The immense center section of pews was covered with panels of a drab, reddish-brown colored fabric. Some of us speculated as to why this section of pews was covered, thinking it might be for protection since this is a working sanctuary. This drab cloth, under the manipulation of the singers — who also represented various spiritual forces that were working in concert with Moses and the Israelites — became the embodiment of the Red Sea as it rose, surged, and spread to cover the audience seated in pews that had now, in response to the staging, become the banks of the sea.
Then Moses began to cross this Red Sea, backed up by his spiritual allies.
It was a powerful and riveting image.
The company of singers was presented to us as an ensemble rather than a group of individuals. This choice encouraged us to focus on the oratorio as the story of an entire people. Heritage Signature Chorale provided the bulk of the vocal power and presence to this enterprise. The Heritage Signature Chorale is a premiere chorus in this region for good reason. Their presence and commitment in the performance brought a sense of historic gravitas to the proceedings. They were nothing short of grand and glorious. In addition, each of the singer-actors playing central characters imbued their roles with a do-or-die urgency. The role of Moses was cast with a tenor in contrast to my aural memories of Hollywood representations of the role. This tenor embodied both the terror and the vulnerability of being faced with potentially lethal forces such as the presence of God and the venality of human beings. At the same time, his voice was so strong that it made credible the warrior Moses who could kill an Egyptian he sees beating a fellow Israelite.
The oratorio concludes with the segment entitled Hallelujah Celebration. Directors Jarrod Lee and Timothy Nelson stage this sequence in such a way that we don’t just hear the recently liberated Israelites singing praises to their savior and exhorting us to do the same. Instead, we get to see how the people’s joy, ecstasy, and relief find release and expression through their bodies. And through that embodiment of their feelings, the freedom of a mass of people becomes individualized. What we are shown in this segment is the sound and the sight of a people discovering — as Nina Simone sings — how it feels to be free. And we get to experience them sharing that discovery with us. After that, it was time for me to go home to rest and meditate on what I had seen and heard.
Negro Spirituals are the warp and the woof of The Ordering of Moses. They are transcendent and inspiring musical expressions of the struggle of Black Americans to live as fully human against all odds. The music testifies to the manifestation of intertwined humanity and divinity that is the inheritance of all people and that calls out for the freedom of all people. Under the sensitive direction of Lee and Nelson, R. Nathaniel Dett’s account of one successful moment in the movement toward human liberation (in this case, that of the Israelites from the Egyptians) is by turns startling, soul-stirring, and highly satisfying.
Running Time: Approximately 45 minutes, without intermission.
The Ordering of Moses plays again on February 11, 2023, at 6:30 pm, presented by IN Series, in collaboration with the Heritage Signature Chorale, performing at Mount Vernon Square United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets (from $35–$55 plus a $5 convenience fee) online.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons.
The Ordering of Moses
presented in collaboration with Heritage Signature Chorale
Music by Nathaniel Dett, Texts from Scripture, and Folklore
Directed by Jarrod Lee & Timothy Nelson
Conducted by Stanley Thurston
Featuring: Melissa Wimbish, Gayssie Lugo, Albert R. Lee, Carl Dupont, Elise Jenkins, Aryssa Leigh Burrs, Brandon Lockhart, Daniel J. Smith, Jihanna Davis
Piano: Emily Baltzer, Organ: Michael Lodico, Percussion: Elliott Godinez
Creative and Production
Choreography: Shawna J. Williams
Artwork: Richshaad Ryan
Lighting Designer: Paul Callahan
Costume Designer: Maria Bissex
Head of Music: Emily Baltzer
Organ Transcription: Paul Byssainthe Jr.
Stage Manager: Joshua Stout
Production Manager: Rebecca Funderburk