My first opera was at age 10 when our parish priest took us to see La Boheme at the Lyric Opera House. I always thought that opera was sung in Italian, German, or French and it was a surprise to learn that Porgy and Bess was considered an opera. It had Black people in it and the score had some jazz elements. The characters were—in my opinion—based on minstrelry. Fire Shut Up in my Bones is an opera by Terence Blanchard based on the memoir of the same name by journalist Charles Blow. It is a deeply moving story that combines jazz, gospel, step, and classical. It is an intoxicating brew that enabled me to immerse myself in memories of my ancestral home of Louisiana.
The story journeys from Charles’ childhood to his reckoning with a secret childhood trauma. Blanchard’s jazz roots are woven into the soaring baritone of Will Liverman as Charles—who was a boy with a “peculiar grace.” Every person has known or been that child with so much imagination and a tenderness that makes them an outsider, and a target. Charles is a Black child from the South with all of the inherent dangers of making a wrong move or being different. He is so peculiar that his mother keeps him out of school until he is 7 years old. Charles’ alter ego Char’es Baby, is sung by Benjamin Preacely with a pure and young tenor. Preacely’s voice is well suited for musicals and melds nicely with Liverman’s. Char’es Baby skips around and makes a simple gold button into a fairy tale in his imagination. Liverman sings that fairy tale with heartbreaking tenderness and emotion.
Latonia Moore sings the role of Billie in her Lyric debut. Moore’s Billie transcends her station in life as a chicken plucker mired in grease and entrails to support five hungry boys. She is a delight to watch as she is at one moment the jealous and angry wife ready to shoot her husband’s side piece—Ruby, sung by Rehanna Thelwell, and her rogueish husband Spinner sung by Chauncey Packer. In the next scene, Moore transforms into a sultry woman when Spinner weasels his way back into her bed. Her acting chops are top notch and her soprano is velvet as it climbs the high notes with gospel music diction.
The opera is co-directed by James Robinson and Camille A. Brown. Their collaboration results in perfect pacing and fills the stage with flowing imagery and action. The libretto is written by actor and film director Kasi Lemmons. She pulls the defining moments of Blow’s memoir and molds them into a riveting and cohesive story. It is not often that a Black fraternity step line is seen outside of a Spike Lee film (Blanchard has written several scores for Lee), much less in an opera. Here is the chance to see an authentic step line choreographed authentically by co-director Camille Brown. The dancers create a surreal forest that haunts Charles by representing the tangle and confusion from his childhood trauma.
Brittany Renee sings a triple role of Destiny, Lonliness, and Greta. Renee gives an ethereal quality to the characters that live in Charles’ mind and briefly in his bed. She appears as a menacing and seductive spectre as Destiny and Lonliness. Renee gives a coquettish charm to Greta who seduces and then breaks Charles’ heart after he reveals his deepest held secret to her.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a uniquely Black American story with Blanchard’s music evoking the subtropical sultriness of Louisiana. The South is also a character in this story with the set design by Allen Moyer and the lighting by Christopher Akerlind lending an eerie feel. Greg Emetaz’s projection designs of shack-like homes and trash heaps took me back to Benton, Louisiana, as I saw it when I was a child. Imagery of fire, smoke, and abandoned homes creates a powerful experience. It is healing to see a Black man’s story told with such grace and beauty where it has been all but forbidden to feel or express emotion. I highly recommend Fire Shut Up in My Bones. There is gunfire, graphic language and sexuality portrayed, so be prepared to explain some things if you bring young children.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones plays through April 8 at Lyric Opera at 20 N. Wacker in Chicago. Tickets range from $59 to $319 and there are no bad seats at Lyric. The theater underwent an extensive renovation during the pandemic with better sightlines and as always perfect sound. Lyric Opera adheres to pandemic precautions so please bring your vaccination card and identification. Masks are to be worn at all times in the theater and the lobby and refreshment areas. Live performances are back. Give thanks and mask up!
For more information on this and other productions, see theatreinchicago.com.
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