John Brown's Jazz Opera
More than 150 years later, was the rebellious abolitionist a madman or a prophet? A San Francisco community theater skirts that question.
Yesterday, because it was within walking distance of my house, and because I have an unhealthy fixation with the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre, I checked out the San Francisco Community Music Center's production of John Brown's Truth, the world's first-ever improvised jazz opera about the 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry. While I don't want to give away the ending, suffice to say, the main character dies in the end. It was a novel concept, and one which I'm hardly qualified to critique the musical merits of, but I will say that the audience seemed to enjoy it, and the little girl with the jump rope—who periodically invited the audience to join her rhymes about Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X—deserves her own solo act.
It was tough to really appreciate John Brown's Truth, though, because it didn't seem particularly concerned with the truth about John Brown. Pottawatomie Creek, where Brown presided as five pro-slavery Kansans were hacked to pieces in 1856, goes unmentioned. I know, I know: Let he among us who hasn't been implicated in a quintuple homicide cast the first stone. Instead our story picks up in 1859, when Brown gets a message from God to become a martyr for the anti-slavery cause, so Brown becomes something of a one-dimensional hero.
But I don't mean to pick on the performance, because 150 years (and change) after his death, no one really knows what to make of Brown.