Jubilee, showing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, takes a necessary step to illustrate the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, also known as HBCUs. Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson, a transcendent experience is facilitated with the help of choral singing, witty dialogue and a cast worthy of praise.
Quite like most uplifting minority stories not considered for mass population, Jubilee centers around a narrative, though familiar to few, resonates with the masses. Thompson’s original piece, inspired by a public television documentary, tells of the plight of a courageous group of college students – some teenagers – who advocated for what was considered a trivial, lofty pursuit back in the mid-1800s.
Thompson’s eye-opening portrayal carefully leads theatregoers down a road of resiliency, where thirteen hopefuls endure the wrath of the south.
In 1871, Fisk University, overcome with financial hardships and on the verge of foreclosure, organized an a cappella group to fundraise for the institution. Hoping to fundraise their education, which they designated as their opportunity for survival, the group encountered all that could be imagined while traveling the Bible Belt, post American Civil War.
Most of Thompson’s theatrical ideation leans on the traditional spirituals sung throughout the Underground Railroad. Selections include “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “There’s a Balm in Gilead,” “Come Down Moses” and the list goes on.
Each of these historical songs, still sung in churches today, encouraged and carried these idealistic yet realistic youth through extreme hardships that were synonymous with bigotry.
Thompson takes this surreal tale and imbeds humor to keep the inspirational a cappella tribute in fact inspirational. You will have the opportunity to deeply bond with these heroes, as they share the truth behind being part of the African Diaspora. The tale recounts childhood, love formed, painful memories that are beautifully expressed in song and spoken word throughout the performance.
Be prepared to be mesmerized by the varying genres of music naturally harmonized onstage. Each cast member has the responsibility of being pitch perfect, and they all rise to the occasion. The surprising part about the vocal talents for this performance was the four roles played by understudies. I can only imagine the heartfelt soul shaking vibrato that would have lifted us further from our seat, if those primarily cast had been in attendance.
Again, each singer is able to carry their own, and they were undeniably put to the test as each were presented with opportune solos. Thompson, evidently, has a knack for pairing singers and selections. While the vocals varied and tunes were broad, the curation was heavenly. The diversity of complexions (organically referenced in throughout the play) paralleled the diversity in tone, makes this spectacle a true sight to see.
Viewers who enjoy opera styled sopranos will feel at home. Those who favor raspy jazz riffs will be most delighted. Those craving soft melodies will croon. And those desiring a deep full bass will fall out of their seats. It was a dream come alive.
Jubilee runs at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater through June 9th. Various times and ticket prices. For more information, visit
Arena Stage: 1101 6th St. SW, DC; 202-554-9066; www.arenastage.org