Steel Hammer—coming to the BAM Harvey Theater this Wednesday, December 2—creatively explores the cost of hard labor on the human body and soul. We spoke with four individuals involved in this collaboration—two singers, a stage manager, and two playwrights—to better understand the process involved in creating this multi-hyphenate work of new music theater.
|Steel Hammer. Photo: Krannert Center|
How did you get involved with Steel Hammer? What is your contribution to the piece?
KATIE GEISSINGER (singer): I'd seen the concert Steel Hammer at Zankel Hall with Trio Mediaeval in 2009, and was longing to sing it. When Julia Wolfe called because she was casting a local trio, I jumped!
CARL HANCOCK RUX (playwright): Anne Bogart (and SITI Company) contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in writing text for a new piece she was working on based on the John Henry myth. I'd long been a fan of Anne Bogart and Julia Wolfe and was thrilled to accept the invitation. I wrote the "Migrant Mamie Remembers" monologue performed by Patrice Johnson Chevannes.
ELLEN MEZZERA (stage manager): I joined Steel Hammer a few weeks before we went to Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2014 as the production stage manager.
KIA CORTHRON (playwright): Anne Bogart contacted me by email. I think we may have met in passing before that, but never formally. She asked me to be one of the contributing writers.
EMILY EAGEN (singer): I remember first discussing the piece with Julia Wolfe on the phone, and, when she described the connections the work makes between folk music and contemporary music, I got so excited! I can still remember that exact moment.
Many art forms are represented in Steel Hammer, including music, theater, dance, storytelling, and more. Can you tell us more about the collaborative process? How has this piece been different from previous works you have been part of?
CHR: I've never co-authored a fully realized play or musical before, and I think that alone made this a unique experience. I also wrote the text without attending rehearsals, hearing the music, or knowing what the other writers were working on. The assignment was really about reimagining John Henry's story, and creating whatever characters I deemed fit to help facilitate that story.
KC: It's different precisely because of all the elements you just mentioned. The original script read-throughs happened in New York—about three rehearsals before the cast went to Actors Theatre of Louisville for the Humana Festival—and Anne asked the writers to attend the New York rehearsals if possible. I felt she was very attentive to what the writers said, especially since it was the first time we all came to the material together and the last time the writers would be around for any extended time. Along the process dramaturg Steve Moulds checked in with questions about possible script changes. We writers were brought down to Humana, and I witnessed some wondrous moments on stage and—being the first workshop—some less wondrous moments. I emailed Anne about my experience and she was generous and entirely receptive. The more I got to know Anne and everyone involved in Steel Hammer, as well as Steel Hammer itself, the happier I was to be a part of this project.
KG: Interestingly, Bang on a Can had done the music in concert as a complete evening many times, and likewise SITI had done the theatrical work (with the Bang recording) as a complete evening in a full run at Louisville. We had to find where the two intersected. I loved seeing how Barney O'Hanlon's great choreography interprets the music, giving it a visual component that emphasizes the inherent rhythm in Julia's work. Now the actors have to be more flexible, because the music is live, and therefore less predictable. And correspondingly, some of our music cues are now visual ones. I've found that my emotional experience is different, because specific choices have been made by Anne and SITI, and I get very involved in the scenes and the way Julia's music and our performance of it can reveal and play with those choices. The last movement was always intense in concert, but now, seeing John Henry (Eric Berryman) leave in one direction while the rest of the cast goes in the opposite direction, the sense of loss is palpable. And I love whenever a cast member is facing upstage and shoots us a grin during the dances—the musicians and the actors are working for each other, with each other, and the audience will become collaborators, too. This is emphasized in Brian Scott's lighting and in Anne's staging, too.
EM: Working with SITI Company has been unlike any other production I have been a part of. Its unique nature is based on collaboration, and building a piece was based on group discussions. I was very lucky during this process because I always had an outside eye and I was able to watch everything come together.
EE: Our first big collaborative rehearsal—which we affectionately referred to as our “blind date"—was a revelation. The whole piece turned inside out as many more layers of the John Henry story unfolded before us. I already loved singing the text because of the way Julia reset lines from the original John Henry ballads, but when we heard the theater pieces—and saw the actors embody the characters—it became that much more three-dimensional. It felt like huge portals of meaning opened up for us.
|Steel Hammer performers rehearse Kia Corthron's Tunnel Tale.|
CHR: I think I first learned a version of the John Henry song in grade school. Or it might have something my grandmother sung to me as a child. Born in rural Virginia at the turn of the 20th century, she always sang folk songs and told me stories about the African American experience in the south (I based my character "Migrant Mamie" on my grandmother, Mamie Cottrell). Either way, I feel like I've always known that song. The first version of the John Henry myth I'd heard on record was most likely Big Bill Broonzy's version. I was also well aware of Johnny Cash's version and most recently, Cecille Mclorin Salvant's jazz rendition.
KC: As an African-American, I'm rather embarrassed to say I'd never known of it till I heard that Bruce Springsteen album a few years ago! Once I got onto the project, of course I went to YouTube and heard widely diverse versions from various 20th Century blues artists: John Lee Hooker, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis and others.
EE: Because I sing and play a lot of folk music, I’ve known several John Henry songs (including “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Take this Hammer") for many years. I sing these with my kids, and now we all walk around the apartment quoting lines from Steel Hammer. My daughter loves to sing all the lists, and even adds her own to the list of names in “Polly Ann." I love that the folk process continues—you just can’t stop it!
Why do you think the tale of John Henry has endured? What themes or messages resonate for you personally?
CHR: John Henry's story, for me, has always been a way of retrieving the Black rural past. It is a story where history and imagination intersect in order to speak to the radical transformation of America at the dawn of the industrial age, and the often undocumented contribution of African-American laborers, enslaved and free, to the making of America. It is a heroic tale of endurance as much as it is a tragic tale of forced labor practices. It is as much a story about the African-American experience as it is a story about labor history and the historical development of working-class identity as racial identity. Many labor historians continue to underestimate the depth of American racism and its deep roots in a pre-capitalist past. There have been many John Henry's in the making of the modern world: the indentured Chinese servants transported to work in Peru, Cuba, the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean and the California gold mines; the Mollie Maguires (Irish coal miners of Pennsylvania); the New Immigration era Slavs, Jews, and Italians; and of course, women and children of all races. The history of labor is at the root of the John Henry story and this alone makes it a timeless story.
KC: Entire books have been written to answer that question! I couldn't begin to try here, though I will say, when after 400 years African Americans still must keep affirming that Black Lives Matter, there is something significant about a story in which the race perseveres because of the strength of a black man and a black woman.
EE: There are many levels on which I experience the story: as a piece of history, as a contemporary tale, as a political fable, as a very personal narrative. Right now, the themes that resonate with me most are on the existential side: what does it mean to live, to struggle through life, to see what you are really made of, to make your mark, to die, and finally to become a part of history? Throughout the plays, John Henry comes to life in different ways: as a worker, a philosopher, a lover, a fighter, a dreamer. You see him grapple with the desire to be “great," and then you see him struggle with the prospect of defeat—either by a machine, society, history, or time itself erasing him. The combination of singing Julia’s music and feeling the connection to the actors makes this show especially powerful, as though we are raising John Henry from the dead and experiencing for ourselves the same desire to really live while we are alive and resist defeat, be it physical or spiritual.
|Steel Hammer performers in rehearsal.|
What are you most looking forward to doing during your time in Brooklyn and at BAM?
EM: I am most looking forward to this production at BAM because we get to present it in New York! It's not very often that SITI gets to perform in town and it's always great to have our friends and family come see our show. We get to show off all the work that we have put into Steel Hammer since its inception a while back.
KC: A year and a half after that initial read-through and many workshops later, I'm most looking forward to seeing how it all turned out.
Steel Hammer comes to the BAM Harvey Theater this Wednesday, December 2, and great seats are still available.