June 7 2006
I’m trying to pack for Vienna between all my bird surveys this week…
So, how did a little white girl like me get involved with the awesome Blind Boys of Alabama and an awesome black gospel musical? I was working in theatre in Seattle as a sound engineer for a few years, and decided at the end of this season, 1995, I was going to head east. I had no idea to where, or what I’d be doing; I just had itchy feet and it was time to leave Seattle for a while. One more show was added to the end of the season, and I got talked into staying for it - it was the Gospel at Colonus.
Originally produced for Broadway maybe 20 years ago, it had come out of the storage closet on and off since then, and here it was at ACT Theatre in Seattle, and they were stuck with me as the sound engineer. It’s the story of Oedipus as preached in a black church. Reduced in size from the Broadway run, it still featured some of The Blind Boys of Alabama, the Soul Stirrers of Chicago, and a host of other cracking singers and actors, (Morgan Freeman played the preacher on Broadway), plus a tremendous choir from Tacoma, WA.
Now, black gospel music had always appealed to me, but THIS! This blew me away. When these men and women sang, it gave me goosebumps, it made me shiver – every night! It never got old. I was never not thunderstruck by the music. I realized then that this was one of the great gifts of my life – the opportunity I had to be a part of this show, to work with these brilliant singers and musicians and designers in a small way. (Seeing as I can’t sing for beans.)
When the 6-week run was over, the producer and director said, “You were great! We’re going to go on tour, and we’ll call you!”
Uh huh, I’d hold my breath. Well, a year and a half later, they did go on tour, and they did call me, and I’ve been with them ever since: the western US, Sao Paulo Brazil, Moscow Russia, Ann Arbor Michigan, Harlem at the Apollo Theatre. And now, Vienna Austria. The show is reincarnated every 2 to 5 years… and everybody drops what they are doing to come do the show. The actors and singers are from all over: Alabama, California, New York, Georgia, Chicago. And the same people show up every time, the same singers and actors (though sadly, one of the Soul Stirrers, Martin Jacox, died before our show in Michigan), and the same tech people. The Blind Boys of Alabama have won 5 Grammy Awards in the last 5 years. The entire cast is so talented, everybody can play or sing everybody else’s part, if someone has to miss a night. Heck, I could even recite anybody’s part. When someone has a brain fart and forgets a line, I say it. The musicians can all play each others’ parts.
My sound designer Ron makes everything easy for me: he sets up the system (something I have no idea how to do), which is a HUGE undertaking, especially in foreign countries, gets everything working and sounding perfect, (well… except that one time in Russia when he didn’t make it at all because he was so sick in Malaysia he was not allowed on an airplane… but I’m still trying to forget that one) so I can do my job: sit behind the board and run the show.
A production like this is a lot of stress for everybody involved. I feel it also, as I am usually sitting out in the audience behind my big sound board, and when something goes wrong during a show (it always does), like if a microphone doesn’t work, who does everyone in the audience turn to look at, to see what is wrong? The little white girl behind the sound board. Those are the nights I wish I ran the lights, because nobody knows when one little parcan among 15 other lights doesn’t come on when it’s supposed to, or a green light comes on instead of a yellow-green light.
But the rewards are worth the stress and pain and no sleep – even if something goes wrong, the actors and singers carry on, and they make it all so amazing no matter what. It’s always a Gospel adventure, and I’m sure Vienna will be no exception!