By Eren Isabel McGinnis
from Nougat Magazine (Lexington, KY)
A creative vortex of wood workers, artists, writers, activists, pundits, and professors swirls around the Bell Court neighborhood. Peeking out my window I would see Dr. Everett McCorvey, Impresario and Opera Star, dashing off in a tuxedo to perform, or to give voice lessons and sing in Prague, or Vienna.
Throughout the years I discovered Everett and I have a lot in common; we are both Virgos with a love for nice clothes and can remain calm in dreadfully high drama fields. Everett is also a fantastic producer, thinks full-size, and not much stands in his way. On a porch swing, we would scheme together and strategize about pooling our talents.
My partner, Ari Luis Palos, and I began a collaboration of our filmmaking and Everett’s music and performance, with a documentary called “Impresario” about Everett’s life work of bringing talent to the stage. We learned of Everett’s leadership of The American Spiritual Ensemble, a group dedicated to keeping the Negro Spiritual alive through performance. The spiritual is an indigenous American art form, created in the fields and plantation houses of the American south. Slaves were able to secretly communicate with each other while singing, giving them the power to console, heal, and resist. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “We Shall Overcome” are just two classic melodies that continue to inspire. Our goal was to create a documentary recounting the bitter history from which the spiritual art form arose, and explore what the music means today with The American Spiritual Ensemble.
Brazil was our first international gig with the ASE and the performers would sensibly go to bed at regular hours, drink herbal tea, and rest their voices. After hours, Ari and I would go out with Joey Prather, the piano player and Pablo, the Brazilian impresario, to drink passion fruit Caipirinhas while enjoying the samba and jazz clubs. In Rio we all hiked to the top of Corcovado, where Jesus the Redeemer inspired the down Diva, Angela Brown, to perform an impromptu spiritual for the crowd.
Raising money for independent film projects is a perpetual struggle. We went to Spain to document the 10th Anniversary tour of the American Spiritual Ensemble and to witness the effect of the spiritual on international audiences. We had a grand total of $127 in our bank account when I received a cryptic email from a potential funder, ITVS, an organization who fund projects for PBS. Ari and I did an impromptu dance in the plaza of a dusty olive tree growing Spanish town to an audience of old men and a gas station attendant. We later found out, the panel without a vision, had turned us down for funding, which is not really surprising, since the panel only funds about 2% of incoming projects. We were lucky with this one, because even though the panel had turned us down, a few brave staff members at ITVS felt this was a documentary worth funding! We then formed a partnership with PBS and KET, a local group with a long history of supporting our work.
Ari and I wanted to branch out stylistically with our new movie and create fictional vignettes to make the viewer understand and feel the history of the spiritual. Our first detailed shoot in Spain was to take place near the water, close to volcanic rocks, on the island of Palma de Menorca. The inspiration was to have our actors use the energy of the ocean to remind them of their African homeland. Our actors were jetlagged but ready to go; we had all journeyed far to this enchanting spot, only to discover our batteries had been drained by Spanish eletronics, rather than being charged. A film crew is basically dead without battery power. We decided not to panic or let our actors know there was trouble all around with no solution close by. Ari is a technical genius and quickly determined he could connect his camera to Everett’s rental car as both run on 12 volts. He cut the cables with the corkscrew in our sound bag and hooked the camera up to the car battery. I feared our very expensive camera would blow up when Everett started the car. We did have power again and got the opening shot of the movie.
The next day in Barcelona we walked all over town but could not land any professional camera batteries and were forced to use a couple of heavy moped batteries duct taped in an improvised fanny pack. Needless to say, we left the ominous contraption behind as we have enough trouble boarding a plane with our ‘mysterious’ equipment.
The full force of the creative collaboration came to be during our big shoot at the Roman coliseum in Tarragona, Spain. We had made this an optional shoot as the performers were really burning it up during the tour of Spain. The concerts would start at 10:00pm and we would return to our hotel rooms late feeling the spirit of the music. Our Spanish Impresario, Juan Diablo, would have us up frightfully early to catch a plane, bus, or the infamous Mediterranean boat ride where most of the passengers hurled during a freak storm. There was of course the ubiquitous drama associated with having access to the coliseum and it was raining. The cultural context is different in Spain. Ari and I work all over the world and are more accustomed to the Mexican mantra that “everything is possible’, whereas in Spain the credo was, “NO! It is impossible”. But just for today, the weather cleared, and each and every performer got off that tour bus, the opera divas in their fabulous glittery gowns, and the men in their tuxes. I almost cried watching the women negotiate the crumbling 2,000 year old coliseum steps in their high heels and sing Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho and the walls come a tumbling down. The motivation for the performers was to be strong like their ancestors and they looked magnificent! This was a tribute to the goals of the project, to actively participate in the creation of a documentary, and to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of African Americans to the canon of America music.
This filming of the documentary inspired a series of creative collaborations and helpful hands all over Spain and the American South. People believed in the spirit and historical importance of this project and wanted to be a part of and contribute to making this film better. One of the few roadblocks that we encountered was with the Woodsongs folks. One of Michael Jonathon’s hysterical henchmen wanted to throw me out of The Kentucky Theatre lobby for trying to secure an interview with Odetta, a legendary perfomer, who sang spirituals during the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom back in 1963. This was a rare example of ego and unnecessary attitude getting in the way of creative expression and all the more shocking being that we had already and would continue to receive so much support along the way.
We were rolling into Montgomery, Alabama, Everett’s hometown, and our actor called to cancel, she had thrown out her back. We had to scramble and found two young actors from Alabama State and secured period costumes. Ari and our still photographer were setting up the shots at the kudzu infested crumbling southern mansion. The rain was coming down so hard on my drive to the location that I could barely see that this was part of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. As I pulled into our location the rain lifted and in its place was this soil hugging fog, the type that Hollywood studios spend big bucks to recreate. Shooting around the slave quarters threw us all back in time. My friend Claudia Michler, of Michler’s fame, told us that one way to find the slave quarters was to look for the daffodils, which the slaves frequently planted to beautify their surroundings.
To reach the in use roots of the Negro spiritual we journeyed to Gastonia, North Carolina to record music with regional hymn choirs. We were welcomed to a multi-congregational hymn choir sing fest. One choir would start up with the leader doing the call and the others falling in with the response. It was three hours of an improvisational wave of singing and foot stomping.
The world premiere of The Spirituals documentary will take place in Lexington. We will be joined by the entire ensemble who will be watching the film for the first time. A question and answer session with Dr. Everett McCorvey, Ann Grundy, and our Editors, Lisa Molomot and Jacob Bricca, who are flying in from New Haven, Connecticut, will follow the screening. The Spirituals will air on PBS and film festivals throughout the country and Spain.
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