‘Inspira’ revives the power of the spiritual in Lancaster

“The Old Plantation,” artist unknown, c. 1780s.

There's a scene in Selma, Ava DuVernay's masterful portrayal of a seminal moment in the arc of both the American Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.'s life, when Dr. King has a difficult conversation with his wife, Coretta. As soon as she leaves the room, he picks up the phone and calls another woman, awakening her as she lies next to her husband.

Since I'd heard that Selma addresses MLK's infidelities, I assumed he was calling a mistress. Instead, he asks the woman on the other end of the line to bring God to him, so she begins to sing his favorite hymn, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” After she finishes, Dr. King thanks Mahalia Jackson for lifting his spirits and goes to bed, seemingly empowered to face the daunting task in front of him.

Although Thomas Dorsey's “Precious Lord” is a hymn with a known composer, I was reminded of that moment as I read about Inspira The Power of the Spiritual, Lancaster-based playwright Amanda Kemp's attempt to use the power of the Negro spiritual to exorcise her lingering anger and sadness in the wake of the recent deaths of black men in Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere.

Born during the unthinkable oppression of slavery, spirituals made time pass more quickly, released tension, and expressed thoughts that might have had dire repercussions if spoken, such as coded plans for escape. Amanda Kemp calls them “miracle music” because it is miraculous to “create such fierce, beautiful and effective art when every day brought pain, fear and fatigue. . . . [T]hey were created in community and reinforced our humanity even when the world said we were not quite human. But spirituals aren't just about the past, spirituals can help us connect with our personal and collective power right now.”

Headlines about Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown are rare, these days. Hardly unexpected — people would rather talk about how the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl than ponder if there is a fundamental need for change to our society. For a while, there were die-ins, ubiquitous T-shirts that said “I Can't Breathe,” and hashtags proclaiming that black lives matter. But the wounds haven't healed, especially in the light of the acquittals of Daniel Pantaleo, Darren Wilson, and George Zimmerman, and the pain remains.

Artists’ response to hurt

Artists respond to hurt with self-expression. True to the name Inspira, Kemp intends to allow people of every culture and race to create a “space to breathe and sing and feel the power of the spiritual today.” Inspira is a performance piece rather than a scripted play, focusing on the spiritual but also incorporating classical music, jazz, spoken word, dance, and African drumming performed by Kemp, violinist Michael Jamanis, saxophonist Francis Wong, storyteller/activist/vocalist Matthew Armstead, and Liberian drummer Gerri McCritty. Recent events are referenced, but so are the Emancipation Proclamation, Tiananmen Square massacre, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The unscripted nature leaves room for the audience participation that will, hopefully, elevate the performances to the realm of a happening rather than a show.

I am always encouraged when people publicly acknowledge the power of art, especially now, when so much focus is placed on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects as the path to human progress. All of these fields require creativity; people who are proficient in STEM pursuits can also be artistic.

More than STEM

Still, while scientific discoveries can help to heal the body, they cannot heal the soul. The spirituals’ place as a foundation of African-American artistic expression makes these songs a particularly appropriate avenue for addressing the emotional upset from the perception that young black men are expendable. And spirituals are such a deep, wide body of literature that people of all cultures can respond to them, even without understanding their roots.

Beauty and hope in the midst of pain is a fundamental goal of Inspira. If all of us would commit to bringing a bit more beauty and hope into the world, the results would truly be spiritual.

Inspira: The Power of the Spiritual is coming to the Ware Center, 42 North Prince Street, Lancaster, PA on February 14 at 7:30pm and February 15 at 3pm. Tickets are available online