BOTTOM LINE: A great American story, told in song, that leaves you wanting more.
Between the Underground Railroad heroism of Harriet Tubman and the Civil Rights-era courage of Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth sometimes gets lost. The opera TRUTH, which premiered in Massachusetts (where she was a resident) last year, celebrates Truth's life and depicts her personal struggles. Born a slave in upstate New York, Truth dedicated herself to obtaining freedom and social justice not only for herself, but for fellow blacks and women.
I was eager to see TRUTH because I find Sojourner Truth’s story compelling and inspirational, with the kind of drama and grandeur worthy of opera (by which I mean real opera, the kind seen in opera houses, not on Broadway stages). Performed by a cast of four adults and one child with a seven-piece orchestra, the chamber version of the piece currently being presented here in New York covers Truth’s long life in three acts: the first depicting her youth in slavery, the second her early years of freedom, and the third her activism during and after the Civil War. Assisted by Paula M. Kimper’s beautiful melodies, Mari-Yan Pringle, as Sojourner, shows how the slave’s unequivocal yearning for freedom is frustrated by the complex rationalizations of the white majority -- for example, a master who has both a financial and an emotional attachment to “Belle,” as Truth was called before casting off her slave name. Though Truth has unyielding faith in God and in her own dignity, the realities of her condition -- black, female, illiterate -- hamper her ability to do the good work for which she has such natural talent. And even as she finds satisfaction in her role within the abolitionist movement, she is haunted by her failures as a parent: Pringle’s scenes with young Jaylen Fontaine, who plays Truth's son Peter, are among the opera’s most poignant.
I was moved by much of TRUTH, so much so that I was disappointed to see such a scaled-down version, but such is the nature of the Fringe. This piece need not include the hordes of singers seen in Aida at the Met, but for musical heft and dramatic clarity, a larger cast would do wonders. Coming in at a lean 90 minutes, it also manages to cover a remarkable amount of Truth’s eventful life, but I could have watched for twice that long. A necessarily abridged take on a great American story, this version of TRUTH is, hopefully, a promise of more to come.
(TRUTH plays at Theater 80, 80 St. Marks Place between First and Second Avenues, as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, through August 25, 2013. Remaining performances are Monday, August 12 at 4:15PM, Friday, August 16 at 7:45PM, Saturday, August 17 at 9:15PM, and Sunday, August 25 at 5:45PM. Tickets are $15 in advance, $18 at the door, and are available at fringenyc.org, or by calling 866.468.7619. For more information, visit paulakimper.com.)