On Dec. 1, 1955, the activist Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to vacate her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., to make room for white passengers, thus setting off a boycott and providing essential inspiration to the Civil Rights movement. A few weeks later and 280 miles away in Nashville, Elvis Presley stepped into an RCA studio to record “Heartbreak Hotel,” which was released at the end of the month.
The King’s first big hit, which helped spark the rock ’n’ roll revolution, can hardly be mentioned in the same breath of Parks’ courageous historic action that sparked an historic societal revolution in American race relations. Presley, in fact, was accused of appropriating African American music. Yet the phenomenon of Elvis was the harbinger of the social revolution that pop music would produce over the next few years.
Taken together, these two events do, though, reveal the zeitgeist of mid-1950s America. And somehow, through an incredible coincidence, the most unlikely back-to-back celebrations of Parks and Presley you could ever imagine have appeared to meddle with our own zeitgeist.
On Sunday night, jazz trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith premiered his “Rosa Parks Oratorio” at REDCAT as the final program in the Angel City Jazz Festival. Across town Monday in UCLA’s Kaufman Dance Theater, Theatre Nohgaku, an international Noh collective, offered the Los Angeles premiere of “Blue Moon Over Memphis,” a new Noh play about — you guessed it — Elvis!
Talk about zeitgeist.
Smith’s sublime oratorio and the startlingly affecting “Blue Moon” are clearly products of what has become a mature and increasing essential globalism uniquely viable in the arts. But we’ve got talk about more than that. How about poltergeist? Both works are radically multicultural and achieve their most substantial results by unexpectedly channeling the spirits of Parks and Presley.
For three vocal soloists, string quartet, trumpet quartet, drums, electronics dance and video, “Rosa” is based on seven songs that, for Smith, represent a vision of humanity. The oratorio begins with an angry instrumental outburst, the sensation of Parks’ unmovable activity necessary to bring about change. Her life becomes the speaking truth to power for which we celebrate her.
But it is a universal transformative vision, Smith told the audience after the performance, that moved him. Parks dreams of these seven songs, and that dream and those songs can be precisely replicated by anyone anywhere on Earth. Thus there are spirits of all sorts. The singers, for instance, were the astonishing Mexican experimental vocalist Carmina Escobar, the haunting Chinese singer and pipa player Min Xiao-Fen and the vibrant operatic soprano Karen Parks.
An outstanding string quartet, led by violinist Shalini Vijayan, offered hard-edged grit. Leading the trumpets, Smith’s solos were brilliant condensations with few but lingering notes, not sounding like they were coming from him but sounds already in the air that he was catching for us before they got away.
The dancer was the butoh-trained Oguri, whose four “vision dances” were the product of another gatherer of spirits. His body was like branches swaying in the wind of sound. In his last movement, he held a bouquet of roses in front of his face as a dancer in Noh might a mask.
Jesse Gilbert’s video blended the live musicians with images of Parks and her world, adding a gauzy luminosity to the stage, although Oguri and Smith are such transfixing presences that there were also a few moments of visual overkill.
In the end, though, what makes “Rosa” great is the way Smith evokes a communion of the oratorio’s exceptional parts conveying less of the historical Parks as the ongoing spirit of Parks’ power to be felt throughout the world.
Likewise “Blue Moon Over Memphis” disguises dream and reality. The concept seems, I know, risible, chaining one of the purest and least penetrable forms of theater to “Unchained Melody.” As a lover of Noh, my first reaction was the not uncommon: give me a break.
But I also happened to catch Elvis in one of last shows in Las Vegas not long before he died in 1977. And in a world of truly ridiculous Elvis impersonators, none comes as close as capturing that unnerving, experience of seeing the grotesque King. I was going to say live. But his face was a drugged mask. He sang and moved as though programmed, impervious to his screaming fans.
I left feeling that nothing is real, that Elvis was nothing but a shell and not knowing what, if anything, was behind it. In retrospect there was something Noh-like in all this. So it’s not such a bad idea, after all, to try to capture what can’t be captured through a form of theater that is both about appearances and about appearances not mattering.
Written by Deborah Brevoort and performed in English, “Blue Moon” is structured with the complex formal Noh traditions of dance, song and stage movement. Richard Emmert’s convincing score, which employs a small chorus and ensemble of flute and two drums, is true Noh but also slyly alludes to a Elvis song here and there.
The kimono-clad Judy, played with stern intensity by Elizabeth Dowd, is a 40-year-old fan who makes a pilgrimage to Graceland on the anniversary of the King’s death and meets the ghost of Elvis in the Meditation Garden. A seeker like many Noh protagonists, she is looking for meaning to life. He has nothing to offer. He was lonely while alive. Death is even lonelier.
Elvis is a radiant visage in a dazzling white kimono of vast yardage and with gold fan as only Elvis from the beyond could be. Performing behind a mask, John Oglevee miraculously captured the Elvis I saw in Las Vegas. The gestures, song and dance are utterly different from anything anyone would, in right mind, associate with Elvis. Yet that becomes the brilliant point. In the weirdest way, Elvis with a mask on is Elvis with his mask off.
While the production, presented in Noh fashion on stage with three trees and in front of painted screens, displays the exceptional rigor of Noh, it doesn’t take itself unbearably seriously.
In a comic interlude, Lluis Valls, as Oscar the groundskeeper, hilariously puts down Elvis and compares 10,000 women removing their panties and throwing them in the air above Elvis’ grave as being like a snowstorm during a full moon. With an evocative image like that and an Elvis like that, “Blue Moon” becomes, in its own right, almost as much of an act of summoning as “Rosa.”