The feeling of isolation, even when surrounded by a community and a family that loves you, resonated with Grammy-winning jazz musician Terence Blanchard when he read Charles Blow’s memoir, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”
In Blow’s deeply poignant narrative of enduring loneliness in his hometown of Gibsland, Louisiana, and surviving childhood sexual abuse, Blanchard saw the potential to set the story to music. And in telling of Blow’s long struggle to heal and his ultimate professional success as a New York Times opinion columnist, Blanchard saw a chance to compose a story of hope.
“Being in a community and feeling so different from everyone in that community, feeling so isolated,” was familiar to Blanchard, he said in a recent interview with Peter Gelb, managing director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. “I want to do something to help people heal.”
Blanchard adapted Blow’s story in the opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which made its Metropolitan Opera premiere in September. Beginning this weekend, a live telecast performance of the show—which has received rapturous reviews — will make a limited, 2-day run in 13 Atlanta Regal Cinema theaters.
Veteran filmmaker Kasi Lemmons wrote libretto, pulling much from Blow’s account of growing up poor and the youngest of five boys reared primarily by their mother in Gibsland. James Robinson and Camille A. Brown co-direct the show, which is a first for The Met in many ways: It is the first performance of an opera by a Black composer in the company’s history. And Brown, who also choreographed the opera, is the first Black person to direct a main stage show at The Met since its founding in 1883.
Blow, who moved to Atlanta about two years ago, was unsparing in his description of his nearly debilitating childhood loneliness and the shroud of shame he could not shake years after an older cousin abused him. That anguish is made palpable in the hands of Blanchard and Lemmons. Blanchard, who scored many of Spike Lee’s films, and is one of the great jazz trumpeters and bandleaders of his generation, takes Blow’s pain and lifts it with aching grace, and in harmonies that are at times reminiscent of his film soundtracks. Lemmons tenderly reveals Blow’s coming of age as “a boy of peculiar grace” in shorts and tube socks, to a college student in a fraternity sweater who realizes that grace means, “a dangerous existence for a man of my race.”
Credit: Ken Howard
Credit: Ken Howard
All is not anguish. And in many ways, the production celebrates moments rarely or perhaps never seen in opera: the blood and stench of working on the line at a chicken processing plant; the exuberance of a fraternity step show at a historically Black university; the rhythmic double clap of parishioners catching the Spirit in a rural Black Baptist church.
As much as the loneliness, those experiences also shaped Blow. Perhaps they taught him something about endurance and triumph. “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” is about the freedom and self acceptance gained when a person is able to lay their burdens down.
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones”
12:55 p.m. today
In Atlanta at Atlantic Station Stadium 18, Silverspot Cinema, The Battery, Perimeter Pointe 10; in Marietta at Merchant’s Walk Stadium Cinemas 12; in Fayetteville at Tinseltown USA; in Kennesaw at Barrett Commons 14; in McDonough at McDonough Stadium 16; in Douglasville at Regal Arbor Place 18; and in Lawrenceville at Sugarloaf Mills 18.
For Oct. 27 showtimes at these locations and more, go to metopera.org.
About the Author
Credit: Jess Rapfogel/AP