Jonathan McCrory on ‘The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout,’ a safe space for healing from social unrest

The unconventional concert at the Kennedy Center on June 1 will culminate a week of events featuring the Black experience.

National Black Theatre’s Executive Artistic Director Jonathan McCrory is a talkative, learned, and energetic man. He is the perfect choice to direct Kennedy Center’s The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout, a concert taking place at the Kennedy Center in partnership with Apollo Theater and National Black Theatre (NBT). The concert plays June 1, but there are exhibits leading up to and after the show running May 26 through May 31, and June 2, 2024.

“It’s not a play. It’s a quest; it’s a journey; it is a concert,” said McCrory, a DC native and the director of The Gathering: A Sonic Ring Shout. The show incorporates soul, choral, gospel, and orchestral music — and poetry that should leave people walking away feeling “that they’ve had a conversation with the civic and political and social unrest of our country” and co-curate “something that will help us deal with the unrest and find the possibilities inside of it.”

National Black Theatre Executive Artistic Director Jonathan McCrory. Photo by Gioncarlo Valentine.

This two-hour Sonic Quest will be where folks will listen to seven original pieces navigating and charting through the Black identity, Black culture, American identity, and American culture that lives at the convergence of our angst, of our traumas, of our frustrations, to the nexus of our possibility, our love, and our Grace. —Jonathan McCrory

“We are in a space of great civic unrest, but we are also in a space of great possibility,” McCrory said.

McCrory continued: “When I say ‘space’ I am talking about a couple of things. We have a gathering, a week of a ‘takeover’ of the Kennedy Center. We are going to be doing seven different events that are curated by the National Black Theatre and the Social Impact Office of the Kennedy Center. It is free and family-friendly programming.”

During the week of free events, McCrory said, “We acknowledge the Black settlers who lived in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC. We are doing a quilting exercise. Quilts have been a part of telling our story. We are doing a ring shout and a three-hour dance party.”

A ring shout is a West African dance that involves a group of singers moving in a circle while stomping their feet and clapping their hands. Ring shouts were practiced by American slaves. “[At] a ring shout, someone brings their grief, and it gives them a place to heal.” That portion of the show will feature the McIntosh County Shouters from Georgia.

The ring shout allows anyone to bring their grief to the table through a communal act of gathering, which we as Black and Brown folks have done intentionally out of space to heal, especially for those who find themselves as descendants from slaves and or from the Antebellum South from slavery. The intentionality of gathering becomes really important to actually re-find family and community again. —Jonathan McCrory

“The ring shout is historically an open space to grieve, awaken joy as a source of liberation, and use love as a form of resistance,” said Apollo Executive Producer Kamilah Forbes.

The concert will be narrated by a virtual host, Mahogany L. Browne. During the show, “Folks will listen to seven original pieces that will navigate through the Black and American culture that lives as the convergence of our angst and our trauma,” said McCrory. “We are going on a quest of healing together.”

The themes include the relationship between police, Black culture, and Black people.

One of the signature works is Seven Last Words of the Unarmed (by Joel Thompson), which centers on seven last words of Black men who have been killed by cops. That work is set to an 80-person orchestra and a 48-person choir and McCrory said it gives “a space or remembrance to those who have been hurt or abused or killed by the police.”

“You will hear an acapella song by Abby Dobson that merges the National Black Anthem with ‘Say Her Name’ so we don’t forget that women are part of this atrocity,” McCrory said. “We need to rally around all life, not just Black male life and Black fem life. We can talk about the Sandra Blands and George Floyds.”

McCrory continued: “You’ll hear songs that address the question ‘What is our responsibility to each other?’ You’ll hear music that will show your context within this city. There will also be songs that touch on the spiritual.”

“I am aligning the pieces until they shine,” McCrory said of the performers, who include Dobson, Toshi Reagon, Courtney Bryan, classic R&B star Nona Hendryx, Joel Thompson, Troy Anthony, and Carlos Simon.

Choir Director Nolan Williams will conduct the 40-person choir. Troy Anthony’s Fire Ensemble joins the show from New York. The concert features the American Composers Orchestra conducted by Chelsea Tipton II, and 48 members of the NEWorks Voices of Inspiration chorale under the direction of choirmaster Nolan Williams Jr.

The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout was originally performed to a sold-out audience at The Apollo in Harlem, New York, in 2022. “We are taking that same energy and dropping it into the Kennedy Center,” McCrory said. The concept of the show was partially the brainchild of Apollo’s Forbes.

As for his directing background, McCrory said Hands Up was his most impactful piece. He directed the world premiere. “It created a healing space in a time of unrest. There’s got to be a place to breathe while they [activists] think.” As for his education, McCrory said, ”Duke Ellington [School of the Arts] was a very important space. It was the best training I had in my life.”

He thinks the concert will show young directors and other creatives that “we don’t need to be beholden to traditional models. Art can heal and move the dial forward. But it takes many people [doing different things].”

McCrory left me with these thoughts about what audiences can take away from the show: “I hope that folks see the Kennedy Center is a place they can engage with and come back to over and over and over again. I want people to feel welcome. I welcome you to have a conversation about the possibilities of changing this world.”

As a DC native, sometimes I didn’t always see the Kennedy Center as a space for me to engage with. I hope that Washingtonians can actually engage with the content of the Gathering and want to return to the Kennedy Center because they now see a recurring narrative that looks like them and feels like them. —Jonathan McCrory

Bringing this work to the DMV area is a calling card for folks to engage with all of those mechanisms from finding themselves together, to being able to turn their grief into something that is possible, to seeing the Kennedy Center beyond a destination for performance — as a treasured jewel for every DC resident and visitor to be have access to. —Jonathan McCrory

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes including a 15-minute intermission

The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout plays June 1, 2024, at 7:30 pm, in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($45–$99) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout
Creative Concept and Direction by National Black Theatre’s Executive Artistic Director, Jonathan McCrory

This performance is co-produced by National Black Theatre and The Apollo in association with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and is an external rental presented in coordination with the Kennedy Center Campus Rental Office and the Social Impact Office. 


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