Beginning and concluding its 30th anniversary fall season with works that continue the institution's immersion in issues of national and global import, Harlem Stage will present the premieres of Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project (September 19-22) and Sleep Song (November 30-December 1).
These integrally related works are presented as part of Harlem Stage's WaterWorks program, which additionally commissioned and produced Holding it Down. Created by two longtime collaborators, composer/pianist Vijay Iyer (2012 Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Award Winner-Pianist of the Year, GRAMMY Award Nominee, five category winner in the 2012 DownBeat International Critics Poll and 2012 Greenfield Prize Award Winner) and poet/performer Mike Ladd (Easy Listening For Armageddon, Welcome To The Afterfuture, Negrophilia and Vernacular Homicide), together with poet / United States Marine Corps Iraq veteran Maurice Decaul, Holding It Down and Sleep Song shed musical and poetic light on two sides of the experience of war: what it means for American soldiers of color to return home from international conflict, and the impact of American soldiers and their missions on the lives of civilians in Iraq, respectively.
Performances of Holding It Down (World Premiere) will take place Wednesday-Saturday, September 19-22, 7:30 P.M. at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse (150 Convent Avenue, Manhattan). The institution will present Sleep Song (American Premiere) at the Gatehouse on November 30 and December 1 at 7:30 P.M. Tickets for each production are $30 ($24 for Harlem Stage members) and can be purchased by visiting www.harlemstage.org or calling 212.281.9250 ext. 19/20.
Directed by Patricia McGregor (Hurt Village at Signature Theater Company, Blood Dazzler at Harlem Stage), and featuring a stellar team of collaborators, Holding It Down is a thought-provoking, sometimes harrowing, and ultimately exhilarating combination of music, poetry and song, woven from the actual dreams of young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The work explores soldiers' internal battle with the psychological remnants of war, and their struggles to achieve dignity in an atmosphere of public indifference and widespread disillusionment.
The premiere of Holding It Down culminates three years of development in WaterWorks, the umbrella for all Harlem Stage-commissioned, -produced and -presented works. For Holding It Down, Ladd and McGregor interviewed American veterans of color about their dreams-both their aspirations and the visions they experience while sleeping, which are by turns disturbing, surreal and mundane. Ladd's lyric adaptations of these accounts are juxtaposed with first-person poetic contributions by veterans Maurice Decaul, who served in Iraq in 2003-04, and Lynn Hill, who was tasked with remotely piloting drones over Afghanistan from a base in Las Vegas.
Both Decaul and Hill have become crucial members of the creative team. As Iyer said in a recent interview for the National Endowment for the Arts blog ArtWorks, "When you're dealing with veterans in a performing arts environment, it's not just a project that's about them, or that's depicting them; it is them. So you have the reality of their presence erupting into the work-intervening in this artistic experience. So it's a different kind of feeling, which, for me, was always an important component of this project."
This collection of veterans' dream poems, alternately brutal, elegiac and joyous, are set to wide-ranging original music created and performed by Iyer and his electroacoustic ensemble, with video designed and edited by McGregor, forming an original, multidimensional evening-length work.
A diverse cast of artists will perform the world premiere: Iyer (piano, laptop, compositions), Ladd (poetry, vocals, sampler, analog synthesizer), Decaul (poetry), Lynn Hill (poetry), GuillerMo Brown (vocals, auxiliary electronics), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Okkyung Lee (cello), Kassa Overall (percussion) and Latasha N. Nevada Diggs (vocals, live electronic processing). The work features video design by Tim Brown, lighting by Alan Edwards, and costumes by Dede Ayite.
In keeping with Harlem Stage's commitment to work that addresses the issues of the world and brings them into perspective in ways that only art can, Holding It Down explores important questions: How is this new generation of veterans suffering and surviving, and what are they able to dream about? How do they go about their irreversibly transformed lives, moving from the unspeakable back to the quotidian? Using the condensed, universal logic of dreams to express and affirm their essential humanity, Holding it Down pays tribute to young men and women returning home and questions the impact of violence on them as well as indirectly on the victims of the war. Sleep Song, directed by Mike Ladd, is a response to Holding It Down, and focuses on the populace of nations affected by war. In creating it, the Iyer, Ladd and Decaul team worked with Iraqi artists-poet (and Baghdad citizen) Ahmed Abdul Hussein and oudist Ahmed Mukhtar, in addition to the French rock guitarist Serge Teyssot Gay-to develop the viewpoint of that country's citizens. The piece made its world premiere in France last fall, produced by the Fondation Royaumont in Asnières-sur-Oise, France and the Opera Odeon in Paris.
Through its Dig Deeper series, which offers audiences pre- and post-performance opportunities to interact with the art and the artists, Harlem Stage, in conjunction with Columbia University, will offer community programming and humanities events to foster deeper engagement with the issues explored in these works. These include visits by the poets to VA facilities; an open rehearsal on Thursday, September 13, for veterans and non-veterans, followed by dinner and discussion; and a post-performance talk on Thursday, September 20. On October 23 and on November 26 & 27 (dates TBC), Harlem Stage and Columbia will host a panel and symposium, entitled "War and Artistic Creation," featuring artists, scholars, activists and others. Additional details and events will be announced soon.
Holding It Down and Sleep Song follow the previous award-winning Iyer/Ladd collaborations In What Language? (2003) and Still Life with Commentator (2006), as well as Iyer's key role in the tremendously acclaimed, sold-out Cecil Taylor: A Celebration of the Maestro, which Harlem Stage co-presented with ISSUE Project Room in May 2012.