Darwin's Meditation for The People of Lincoln
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
October 29, 2008
Try to imagine, if you can, a theatrical-ish endeavor where the text is instrumental to the understanding of the piece, but is part of a more unified whole. Try to imagine a relatively seamless blend of a contemporary 18-piece orchestra (SymphoNYC), a premier multi-lingual vocalist (Emeline Michel), text from playwright Daniel Beaty (and others ranging from Lincoln to Darwin to Obama), and incendiary electric violin work (Daniel Bernard Roumain). Now imagine it all functioning together in a grand multimedia symphonic-concerto that bridges the American Revolution, Haiti, the Civil War, and modern day hope. Thanks to BAM and Roumain, the extraordinarily talented composer / performer / violinist / band leader, you don't have to imagine it—because Roumain has unified all of these elements to create the epic new project Darwin's Meditation for the People of Lincoln for the forward-thinking Next Wave Festival. It deserves a longer look (which is apparently coming in 2010).
The story arc of Darwin/Lincoln is the intertwining tales of racial struggle in America, told through the voices of Lincoln and Darwin (who were coincidentally born within hours of each other on February 12, 1809), a Haitian revolutionary in the 1800's, and Beaty. The piece, which moves quickly through three acts at 90 minutes with no intermission, is certainly more akin to a concert with theatrical flourishes than any kind of traditional theatre. And the "pocket play" within the piece, entitled "The Voice," is performed as a spoken-word aria by Beaty, who chooses the words of the piece in the vein of a composer selecting chord progressions and arpeggios to set a mood more than to tell a linear story. It works beautifully under the direction of both Roumain and D.J. Mendel, in conjunction I'm sure with the SymphoNYC conductor Paul Haas. In fact, the beauty of Darwin/Lincoln comes from the disparate elements that each contribute arias/solos to add to the setting of an overall mood.
Roumain is a lightning rod of talent and is charismatic on the electric violin, if occasionally over the top. Each soloist gets his or her moment in the sun with an extended aria, and a good number of the members of SymphoNYC get fleeting solos as well. I have to say it was particularly cool to watch the SymphoNYC members rocking out during parts of Act 2 and 3 while other parts of the piece were gelling—it inspired much head-bobbing in my row, and seemed to energize the audience. Adding more elements to this epic-in-scope art installation is some tremendous video design work by Yuki , which is complemented nicely by terrific lighting design from Matthew Richards. As one would expect from a well-funded festival, the production values are nothing less than first rate.
As a work-in-progress, I'd say that Darwin's Meditation for the People of Lincoln has a pretty bright future ahead of it. Hope has dawned in quite a few places the last few weeks, it seems.