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Cotton is a newly commissioned multimedia song cycle event featuring music by Damien Geter and poems inspired by artist John Dowell’s cotton photography, all celebrating Lyric Fest’s 20th anniversary. It premiered Saturday, February 25, at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral in University City, and will go on to another performance at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday, February 28, but we should appreciate its excellence far beyond Black History Month.
Cotton opens with an operatic rendition of a negro spiritual while featuring a series of collaborative couplets. At the premiere, poets Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Alora Young, Lauren Alleyne, Trapeta Mayson, Nikki Giovanni, Glenis Redmond, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Charlotte Blake Alston, spoke their written words on video followed by operatic renditions of the texts by mezzo soprano Denyce Graves and baritone Justin Austin, set to Geter’s score.
Alongside the spoken and operatic word, animated renderings of Dowell’s photo portraits played across the cathedral walls, echoing print reproductions of the photos affixed to the cathedral walls, creating a truly immersive interdisciplinary event on a virtual, written, and vocal level.
The event effectively used sacred space for hallowed art. Geter’s melancholic arrangements, played here by pianist Laura Ward, incorporate canonical Western songs from “Star Spangled Banner” to “Auld Lang Syne,” nicely complementing the poems. The texts, although developed independently of each other and Geter’s music, echo similar concepts of cotton snow, Southern remembrance, “strange fruit,” “ancestor pride,” and historical pain while critiquing our publicly accepted history through allusions to Thomas Paine and other American images.
Dowell’s vibrant visual display occasionally overlays images of cotton atop urban spaces, or contrasts snow-white cotton with blood-red flowers, effectively echoing the continuing impact of past centuries’ human trafficking within our culture. Graves and Austin are both excellently emotive in their operatic presentations.
As a victim of generational trauma, who dedicated her early career to studying African Americans in 19th- and 20th-century literature, I am increasingly emotionally exhausted by trauma recreation. Yet talking to Lyric Fest-featured poets Redmond and Young, whose immediate ancestors were trafficked in the cotton trade, I simultaneously viewed the cathartic side. Although this performance’s cross-cultural interdisciplinary interplay is brilliant, dissonance occurred when the poems increased in joyfulness while the accompanying music remained somber.
I often feel distraught when innovative artistic creations featuring a diverse cast occur in February, as these are typically overlooked outside the Black community, and rarely remembered in the remaining 11 months. Don’t let that happen to Cotton. This is interdisciplinary art at its finest and deserves your recognition, not only during Black History Month, but at any time of year.
What, When, Where
Cotton. Presented by Lyric Fest. Music by Damien Geter; words by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Alora Young, Lauren Alleyne, Trapeta Mayson, Nikki Giovanni, Glenis Redmond, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Charlotte Blake Alston; with singers Denyce Graves and Justin Austin, and Laura Ward on piano. Saturday, February 25, 2023, at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, 19 S. 38th Street, Philadelphia. lyricfest.org.
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