The new historical musical Jubilee, now running at Arena Stage, is an ensemble work in every sense of the word. No one performer outshines another, but everyone shines in their respective roles.
Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, with vocal arrangements and music direction by Dianne Adams McDowell, Jubilee tells the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African-American a cappella group that broke racial barriers domestically and abroad. Created on the campus of Nashville’s historically black Fisk University in 1871, the original singers were sharply dressed vocalists who would go on to perform for royalty and leave their mark on black history.
There are no complex narrative threads here, just an earnest tale of the love these history-making singers had for singing and each other, the devastating world in which they lived that sought to punish them at every turn, and their lasting but little-known legacy. Jubilee remembers the singers and gives a piece of musical history its due.
It should come as no surprise that the performers’ voices are the best part of a show about a singing group. The actors, seven women and six men, portray Fisk singers and adjacent characters, and it’s electric when they harmonize, their frenetic energy captivating and breathtaking. They’re wonderful when they all sing together, when their voices divide along gender lines, and when they sing individually. With more than three dozen songs packed into the show’s 145 minutes, the show knows that voices are its strength.
Aundi Marie Moore’s operatics blow the house down. Katherine Alexis Thomas’ dulcet tones are soothing. Simone Paulwell, Travis Pratt, and Zonya Love’s solos are worthy of thunderous applause. Lisa Arrindell is the only actor who performs as multiple characters outside of the Fisk group, from the choral master to Queen Victoria, and she does it seamlessly.
Because there are 13 actors playing Fisk singers, the show splits the heavy dramatic lifting, giving every performer roughly equal time. We get to know the individual singers through dialogue spread across the length of the show, and by the end, we learn what became of them after their tenures singing with Fisk. Mostly though, that comes second to the singing.
The songs of Jubilee are the backbone of the African-American experience in the United States, songs that the Fisk Jubilee Singers helped introduce to the world in the 1800s. They’re beloved spirituals and hymns—“Wade in the Water,” “Go Down, Moses,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”—and when arranged and sung as beautifully as they are in the show, they feel even more grand, near and dear to the hearts of many in the audience.
Masterful as a celebration and tribute to Fisk’s extraordinary singers, the musical swings when it sings. When it preoccupies itself with dialogue and becomes more of a history lesson than a musical, it drags a bit. The scenes of dialogue never last very long, though, and it is interesting to learn the history and certain intimate details of the Fisk singers’ lives.
Still, you can’t help but want the show to get back to the actual singing. There are some truly stunning musical numbers here, like the upbeat, fast-paced “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” sequence, which culminates in the show’s most tension-filled scene.
Thompson intentionally includes moments of real levity, a pleasant surprise in a musical that sticks close to history. Actor Greg Watkins uses his body to give the show its most theatrical sense of joy and fun. He’s got killer jazz hands that’ll make your soul leave your body.
There are also moments of profundity, such as Joy Jones’ poetic soliloquy about the simultaneous pride and peril of moving through the world with dark skin. Jubilee’s performers really sell these moments, adding some rich depth to the story.
The show is at its best when it understands what it is: a musical with a little history, triumphant and tragic, sprinkled throughout. In the end, it’s all about the ensemble, as it should be.
To June 9 at 1101 6th St. SW. $86–$125. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.