Go Deeper Get to Know the Awakening Team

Get to Know the Awakening Team

Posted March 12th, 2021

In 2020, we announced that FringeArts received a grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage for a new operatic work coming to the Fringe Festival in 2022. The work has already begun, and we are excited to share more about Awakening, the creative team, and the central figures depicted in the work, to be co-presented with Opera Philadelphia as part of O22.

Awakening is a one-act opera created by Courtney Bryan in collaboration with Charlotte Brathwaite, Cauleen Smith, Sharan Strange, Helga Davis, Matthew D. Morrison, Sunder Ganglani, and the International Contemporary Ensemble, in partnership with Opera Philadelphia. Set to receive its world premiere in 2022, Awakening tells the story of an imagined 21st century Black woman who overcomes adversity by the guidance of three 19th century Black women religious leaders and freedom fighters: Rebecca Cox Jackson, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. Bringing together the elements of composition, improvisation, collaboration, spiritual interest, social, and political aims, Awakening will engage audiences with a historical Black female figure in a way that will propel a conversation about modern power structures. 

Awakening, while born from the history of figures like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Rebecca Cox Jackson, a free person of color from 19th century Philadelphia best known for her religious activism as a Shaker and her autobiography, focuses on the perspective of an imagined contemporary woman who finds a parallel journey with these figures, and represents us all in our possibility for practicing personal, spiritual, and political transformation.”
—Courtney Bryan, Composer 

This project will base itself in several Philadelphia residences and incorporate the surrounding community in the artistic process. The artistic team will host workshops to teach local audiences newly-crafted songs, sharing a generative practice and encouraging participants to consider their role in advancing Philadelphia’s legacy of social change.

Today, we’re highlighting one of the central spiritual figures in the forthcoming opera: Sojourner Truth. Sojourner Truth, originally Isabella Baumfree, was born enslaved in Swartekill, NY in the late 18th century. She escaped to freedom in 1826 and became a major abolitionist and women’s rights activist. After going to court to recover her son in 1828, she became the first Black woman to win such a case against a white man. In 1843 she changed her name to Sojourner Truth, devoting her life to Methodism as well as the abolitionist cause. The reform causes she sponsored were broad and varied, including prison reform, property rights, and universal suffrage, in addition to helping recruit Black troops for the Union army. Her activism centered around the intersectionality of gender and race, taking on the issue of Black female invisibility, along with the hypocrisies of organized religion and white privilege, in her “Ain’t I A Woman” speech delivered at a women’s convention in Ohio in 1851. Her message still rings true today. You can read the full speech (two different versions) here.

Awakening’s composer Courtney Bryan is “a pianist and composer of panoramic interests” (New York Times). Her music is in conversation with various musical genres, including jazz and other types of experimental music, as well as traditional gospel, spirituals, and hymns. Bryan has academic degrees from Oberlin Conservatory (BM), Rutgers University (MM), and Columbia University (DMA) with advisor George Lewis, and completed postdoctoral studies in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. Bryan is currently the Albert and Linda Mintz Professor of Music at Newcomb College in the School of Liberal Arts, Tulane University and a Creative Partner with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. She was the 2018 music recipient of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, a 2019 Bard College Freehand Fellow, a 2019-20 recipient of the Samuel Barber Rome Prize in Music Composition, a 2020 United States Artists Fellow, and is currently a recipient of a 2020-21 Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. 

Courtney Bryan used her initial research around the forthcoming opera to derive her latest work-in-progress: the “Sounds of Freedom” project. Similar central themes are explored in both – freedom, love, spirit, and sanctuary. Featured below is an excerpt of an improvisation prompted by the word “love.” Recorded in December 2019, this was part of a larger prompt of speeches, interviews, art pieces, songs, and other references to the theme of freedom that Courtney sent in advance to the participating musicians – Courtney Bryan (piano); Joe Dyson (drums); Brian Quezergue (bass); Calvin Johnson, Khari Allen Lee, and Stephen Gladney (saxophone); Kevin Louis (trumpet); and Chuck Perkins (poet). 


Visit our blog here and here for more on Awakening! Research by International Contemporary Ensemble. Follow their Instagram at @intcontemporary.

Major support for Awakening has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from a catalyzing gift from Arlene and Larry Dunn as co-commissioned by the International Contemporary Ensemble, FringeArts, and Opera Philadelphia. Production and Development is supported by The MAP Fund, supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.