Montclair’s Peak Performances is fertile ground for Robert Wilson’s “Zinnias”

Montclair’s Peak Performances is fertile ground for Robert Wilson’s “Zinnias”

“The reason we work in the theater is to ask, ‘What is it?’ Not to say what it is.”   — Robert Wilson. A look over Robert Wilson’s schedule for the first six months of this year reveals “Einstein on the Beach” in Amsterdam and Hong Kong, “Wagner 2013” in Berlin, Verdi's “Macbeth” in Bologna, “The Threepenny Opera” in Perth, “Krapp’s Last Tape” in Geneva, and “Life and Death of Marina Abramović” in Toronto, with stops along the way in London and Milan.

There’s only one U.S. gig on Wilson’s calendar. It’s taking place in Montclair, where the visionary director — the artist of many parts who has redefined theater in our time, many would say — is creating “Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter,” an opera in one act about the Louisiana folk painter, a plantation worker and the granddaughter of a slave, who lived from 1887-1988. Her work hangs in the Smithsonian Institution and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

“Zinnias” — with music and lyrics by Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon,  and book by Newbery Honor-winning Jacqueline Woodson — is being produced by Peak Performances (PPMSU) at Montclair State University, where the show will run Jan. 26 through Feb. 3. The production’s concept, direction, set and lighting are by Wilson.

“Zinnias” follows hard on the heels of PPMSU’s premiere of David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s new opera, “Dog Days,” at MSU in October. “Dog Days” attracted a lot of attention. For many, it was a wake-up call that something remarkable is happening at MSU under the direction of Jedediah Wheeler, who heads the university’s Office of Arts and Cultural Programming.  Since 2005, PPMSU has been bringing an impressive roster of cutting-edge artists across a range of disciplines to MSU’s Alexander Kasser Theater. “Zinnias” will be the latest of PPMSU’s more than 50 world and American premieres.

Wheeler’s association with Wilson goes back a long way — most notably, to the Philip Glass-Robert Wilson chamber opera “Monsters of Grace” in 1998. Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and her daughter, composer-performer Toshi Reagon (BIGlovely, Urban Bush Women), provided the music for Wilson’s “gospel” opera “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (2003), based on Flaubert, which toured Europe and received its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“It’s entirely new music,” says Wheeler of the Reagons’ score, which draws on such deep wells as gospel and zydeco, hymns and worksongs. “Bernice and Toshi are meticulous in their research, but ‘Zinnias’ is entirely their own music. We’re calling it an opera principally because it’s sung all the way through. It’s mostly choral singing. In some ways, ‘opera’ is a misnomer, but the word does mean ‘works,’ and ‘Zinnias’ captures  that collaborative meaning.”

The opera’s storyline is not a strict narrative account of Clementine Hunter’s life, Wheeler says, “but it does follow a life chronology, based on real events; it’s sequenced that way. It contains all kinds of things, everything from a funeral to Clementine’s first art show, her learning about art, her relationship to the family who owned the plantation she lived on. It’s not a narrative, but it is a story.”

The title of the piece refers to one of Hunter's favorite floral subjects.

The performers are Cornelius Bethea, Nat Chandler, Carla Duren, Francesca Harper, Karma Mayet Johnson, Jennifer Nikki Kidwell, Josette Newsam-Marchak, Robert Osborne, Charles E. Wallace and Darynn Zimmer, with Sheryl Sutton. The musicians are Robert Burke, Fred Cash, Juliette Jones, Jason Walker and Adam Widoff.

A chain of interesting connections brought “Zinnias” together, Wheeler says.

An important grant was received in 2010 from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters supporting MSU’s Creative Campus project (more below), which draws inspiration from the work of educator-director Paul Baker (1911-2009), founder of the Dallas Theater Center. Perhaps Baker’s most influential student was Wilson, a native Texan who worked with Baker early in his life at the Baylor Children’s Theater. In Robert Flynn’s “Paul Baker and the Integration of Abilities” (TCU Press, 2003), Wilson is quoted, “(Paul Baker) opened a door for me. My interest was in visual arts and painting. I hadn’t thought to work in theater. He encouraged me to use those talents in theater. Most important, he taught me to trust myself, in my body as an instrument.”

“One element of the grant is to foster the development of an artistic project that is also an academic project,” Wheeler says. “I approached Bob (Wilson) about getting involved with this, and he said yes, he was interested. I said that what’s important to me is that you do a project here in America, working with American artists. It turns out that Bob had actually met Clementine — he was 12 years old, I think — and that he remained taken by her life and work ever since. That’s how this started.”

Also important to Wilson was the opportunity to work again with actress Sheryl Sutton, an artistic collaboration that goes back to the director’s “Deafman Glance” (1971) and the original “Einstein” production in 1976.

Baptism Mural_byClementineHunter.jpg

“Bob very much wanted Sheryl to be part of this,” Wheeler says. “She has been living quietly in Chicago; we had to find her. She’s very present in ‘Zinnias.’ He has created an entire performance line for her. She was a very important contributor to ‘Deafman Glance,’ which launched Bob’s career as a major artist, then ‘Einstein,’ of course. I think ‘Zinnias’ is providing Bob with the opportunity to look back into early moments of his life. He has held on to Clementine Hunter all this time, and he has invited a historic figure of his creative life into this production.”

According to PPMSU’s website, MSU’s Creative Campus Initiative, which involves the participation of MSU’s Research Academy for University Learning, aims “to develop a new curriculum on creative thinking and learning. The idea was to integrate (Arts and Cultural Programming)’s world-class visiting performing artists into a new cross-disciplinary course, offered at the University, that would foster creative thinking, whether in performing arts, math and science, humanities, business, or beyond ... Together, they’ve been exploring what it means to be a creative thinker, and how best to foster that creativity in a university student. A new course, Creative Thinking, started its first session in May of 2012, featuring guest instruction from such unique artists as director Robert Wilson, choreographer Liz Lerman and designer Iain Kerr.”

PPMSU’s mandate is “to create work and to bring work to the campus and New Jersey that would not otherwise be seen in Montclair or the broader community, and that’s now including New York City,” Wheeler says. “Our mandate is to bring artists of singular vision here, and we’re doing that. Next season we will be focusing on younger artists who are beginning to find their voice,” such as songwriter Andrea Martin. “We want to take artists on the cusp of a making a statement and give them the opportunity to work on a larger stage. I want them to work without compromise.”

Stay tuned, definitely.

The Alexander Kasser Theater at MSU is on campus at 1 Normal Ave. Tickets are $15 and are available at the box office or by calling (973) 655-5112.

Coming up from Peak Performances: Lionheart Vocal Ensemble with the ACME string quartet in “Wayfaring Stranger,” featuring the East Coast premiere of “Psalmbook” by Ingram Marshall, Saturday, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. in the Kasser Theater. According to the program, “Accompanying Marshall’s meditation on early American psalmody is an eclectic mix of music spanning the 13th to 21st centuries and ranging from sacred chant to Appalachian folk melodies. Works by Phil Kline and Laura Nyro are also highlighted in this ode to restless wanderlust.”

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