‘I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky’ remains sharply poignant

The 1995 'songplay' by John Adams and June Jordan created a new genre of musical theater and boldly confronted systemic issues of the 1990s.

In the early hours of January 17, 1994, a magnitude 6.7 earthquake shook the west San Fernando Valley, waking thousands of Angelenos and sending the city into a nightmarish frenzy. By sunrise, damage from the Northridge Earthquake was already incalculable: 466 fires erupted, portions of the Santa Monica freeway collapsed, and countless buildings were damaged, from apartments to iconic structures like the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The moment of destruction eventually became the inspiration for composer John Adams and poet June Jordan’s 1995 “songplay in two acts,” I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. IN Series brings the rarely performed piece to DC from April 22 to 30 at Atlas Performing Arts Center.

Daniel J. Smith in ‘I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky.’ Photo by Bayou Elom.

Fresh off the success of their first collaboration, Adams and director Peter Sellars were looking for a new form of musical theater. They decided to create one with Jordan, a friend of Sellars’, and called it songplay: a blend of operatic styles and musical genres. Jordan, however, preferred to describe Ceiling/Sky as “earthquake/romance,” with the slash mark implying translation. Jordan’s description alludes to the literal earthquake in the show’s second act and the symbolic “earthquake” of romance: something transformative, aching, and at times, violent.

Jordan believed all forms of activism were born out of love. Ceiling/Sky, while a romance, touches on a broken justice system, police violence, poverty porn, separation of immigrant families, the autonomy of women’s bodies, and systemic isolation, all without dialogue. These defining issues of the 1990s appear just as poignant today, nearly 30 years after Ceiling/Sky’s first staging.

Timothy Nelson dreamed of bringing Ceiling/Sky to the DMV since becoming artistic director of IN Series in 2018. The organization originally planned the production for spring 2021 but delayed it due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Ceiling/Sky is a “pivotal moment” for IN Series and the culmination of many years, dreams, and hopes to bring the production to life.

“I wanted to do this work in particular not only because of its message of community and personal hope but also because it is an important piece of truly American art that IN Series is uniquely able to realize better than any organization in the country,” Nelson said. “This is our stuff, this is our flow. It’s life at the nexus of popular and poetic, classic and revolutionary, blending and binding diverse musical vernaculars, and celebrating that audacity to make more from less.”

DeMarcus Bolds and Shana Oshiro (lying on the floor) in ‘I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky.’ Photo by Bayou Elom. 

Ceiling/Sky’s inability to be defined by one genre or one issue allows the piece to transcend the decades since its premiere. Out of damage and dismantling, Jordan, Adams, and Sellars brought forth a new art form that continues to inspire generations, years after the Earth shook under Los Angeles.

Running Time: Two hours with an intermission

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky plays from April 22 to 30, 2023, presented by IN Series performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$55) are available online.

COVID Safety: Face masks are required at all times for all patrons, visitors, and staff regardless of vaccination status in all indoor spaces in the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Masks may be briefly removed when actively eating or drinking in designated areas. See Atlas’ complete COVID policy here.

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
By John Adams
Text by June Jordan
Directed by Timothy Nelson
Musical Direction by Emily Baltzer and Dave Chavez
Judy Yannini
Daniel J. Smith
Shana Oshiro
Louisa Waycott
John Kun Park
DeMarcus Bolds
Alan Naylor


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