Virginia Opera’s new ‘Sanctuary Road’ elevates Underground Railroad (DC Theater Arts - review)

The nuanced and powerful work tells neglected stories of enslaved people's escape to freedom.

In bringing a new work to the stage inspired by the Underground Railroad, Virginia Opera contributes mightily in answer to the throng of cries demanding a more complete reckoning of social justice, lifting up voices of enslaved people who hazarded all to gain their freedom and the heroes who helped them. In the same way we need to expand our understanding that the Civil Rights Movement was more than Martin Luther King, as a nation we need to identify and honor the many who were part of the loose UR network, more than Harriet Tubman aka “Moses,” who led people to safety and new beginnings as free people, who then, as sung in Sanctuary Road, could “own our lives, own our souls.”

One such hero was William Still. Like Tubman, he served his people by taking up the dangerous work as conductor for the Underground Railroad. Working from his base in Philadelphia, he not only helped a number of people escape to freedom but wrote a book, The Underground Railroad Records, published in 1871, documenting the journeys of over 745 individuals through personal interviews.

Enter two Pulitzer Prize winners, composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell. They conceived the idea that Still’s work would make a great oratorio for four soloists and chorus. They then transformed their collaboration into an opera, giving characters names and creating a series of dramatic vignettes around the feverish central character of Still, determined to create a record of still living people, bearing witness to what they had endured under the yoke of slavery and their harrowing escapes to freedom. This is the opera’s third production and the first in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Sanctuary Road is neither linear nor chronological, but in the adept way Campbell has structured a kind of cinematic cross-cutting, stories resonate and begin to create a rich mosaic. He conjures a diaspora that was nonetheless a community, even if most of them, intentionally dispersed for the greater safety of all, would only meet (again) in heaven.
The libretto is by turns dark and full of pathos, but Campbell also manages touches of humor so that he captures the inventiveness of these historic personages as well as their resiliency. One character, sung by Baritone Adam Richardson, has himself shipped to Philadelphia in a box and relates his frustration being bounced around for days because the handlers can’t read how clearly he labeled “fragile” and “this side up.” The two female soloists, Laquita F. Mitchell and Tesia Kwarteng, conduct a highly comedic mock mourning scene with much wailing and nose blowing, on a train ride disguised in heavy veils as two sisters following the untimely death of their “dear Aunt Abigail.”

The music is easy to assimilate and deeply affecting. Moravec has created for Tenor Terrence Chin-Loy a harrowing leitmotif that is used three separate times to convey a man running day and night for days through woods, snatching fitful sleep stretches in tree hollows and the like. The words, terse and repeated, “Run, run,” wallop great emotional impact. (Later we learn the man was the sole survivor of a group attempting to escape together.)

At other times, Moravec’s lyrical abilities break open our hearts. Some of his most beautiful writing and singing in the show comes in the simple setup for Soprano Mitchell, when her character as Clarissa Davis, who patiently waited two-and-half months, stands in a doorway and prays for rain to fall hard and fast to mask her nighttime escape. “Later,” she sings, “I’ll dance in the rain.”

Damien Geter embodies the role of William Stills. It is always a challenge to be the “still” figure at the center of a drama, when everything and everyone swirls around you so colorfully. His commanding presence and voice full of bass-baritone gravitas made me believe his character fully. One of the most dramatic moments came not in music at all but in the silence. Stills and a man being interviewed come to realize they share a mother and a name; they are, in fact, brothers. The audience felt keenly in that moment the fracturing of families that the institution of slavery dealt to so many and the weight of so many losses in the fullness of that pause.

Virginia Opera boasts an excellent chorus, and from the start, the 39-member ensemble is integral to the storytelling. Even before the opera begins, stage director Kimille Howard has them drift on and sit facing the audience. I imagined they represented both a congregation, perhaps of a Philadelphia Quaker meeting house, but also ancestors whose stories we have not yet heard and who challenge the audience to bear witness. They become in turn passengers on a train, soldiers from both sides of the Civil War, the internal voices urging the man running through the woods, and more besides. The final number is soul-stirring, when all the voices are lifted in the anthem and when at last, arriving in Canada, the characters are “shaking the lion’s paw” and find themselves “…joyfully… Free!”

Dr. Everett McCorvey conducts the chorus and the 46-member Virginia Symphony Orchestra in his debut with Virginia Opera. This renowned artist is a dynamo, leading his own choruses and conducting orchestras across the country. It is a measure of how robust this opera company shows itself to be to have his like take the podium.

Sanctuary Road succeeds not just because it has brought Stills and these neglected stories to our attention but because the work is supple, nuanced, and powerful in the way only an opera can be. Opera operates on the heart and engages all senses. The work also serves as an exhortation for all of us to lend our voices and hands to join in the work still to be done.

Original Article
By Susan Galbraith
DC Theater Arts