Review: Chicago Opera Theater’s Quamino’s Map Pulls the Curtain Back on Black Life in the Georgian Era

Quamino’s Map is the 22nd opera by the Belizean-born composer Errollyn Wallen who trained at the University of London and Cambridge. The libretto is by playwright Deborah Brevoort and the result is a richly layered look at another London that has mostly been unspoken. Slavery was outlawed by George III in 1807 but there were a number of free people of African descent in London who were taken from colonial conquests in Africa and the islands called the West Indies including the Bahamas. There was also a Black nobility that was an entity unto itself and this is the world that Black Billy/Juba Freeman (Curtis Bannister) steps into.

I may be one of a few people who have not delved into the Regency Era series Bridgerton from Chicago writer Shonda Rhimes. Quamino’s Map tells the story of Black life before Shondaland in the Georgian era of England, directed by Kimille Howard. The British army sought help from the enslaved people in America during the Revolutionary War. Black Billy is taken under the wing of cartographer Quamino Dolly (Damen Geter) who encourages him to take on a new name after being baptized, and Black Billy becomes Juba Freeman. Curtis Bannister is a joy to hear and to behold. His sweet and powerful tenor is the centerpiece in this story of love, enslavement by other names, and classism. Geter’s rumbling baritone is a nice counterpoint to Bannister’s tenor and an aural motif enhancing the mentor and apprentice relationship between Quamino and Juba.

Joelle Lamarre, Flora Hawk, and Kimberly E. Jones: Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Juba is a violinist who used to play for the slave master back in Carolina but he sold his precious violin to get on the last ship to London. He sees the charitable and beautiful Amelia Alumond (Flora Hawk) and is thunderstruck by her beauty and fine clothing. Hawk has a silky soprano that soars without a hint of sharpness. Their love is met with formidable resistance from Amelia’s mother Grace (Kimberly E. Jones) and her older sister Elizabeth (Joelle Lamarre). Jones and Lamarre are as much comic relief as they are nobility in Quamino’s Map. Jones and Lamarre may be familiar to those who saw Anthony Davis’ Amistad or Terence Blanchard’s opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Elizabeth is quite funny as the betrothed of Captain Archibald Campbell (Keanon Kyles). Elizabeth wants her wedding to be perfect and she is a bridezilla toward Amelia. When Amelia is caught kissing the impoverished Juba, her mother and sister descend upon her and berate her for being near a man of such low birth. Elizabeth pushes her toward several suitors at the Captain and Grace’s wedding.

I found the story to be interesting but a bit choppy. The character of Quamino serves as more of a metaphor than a central part of the story. He doesn’t have much of a backstory and he is revealed to be an indentured servant. The details of how he and Juba know each other are mostly alluded to—other than they knew each other in North Carolina. I wanted to know more about the character of the raving madman Dele Piebald (Tyrone Chambers II). Chambers is a Greek Chorus of one, warning Juba to put pepper on his feet to keep the bloodhounds at bay. Why is Dele bent and lame? He has a lush tenor that I wanted to hear more of.

Flora Hawk, Damien Geter, and Curtis Bannister: Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Wallen’s music has what is called a wide vocabulary. There are elements from several categories including the Baroque, classical, jazz, and American Broadway. The characters of the flesh peddlers and lowlifes have a rip-roaring number led by Mistress Paddington (Leah Dexter) and Tawny Betty (Veena Akama-Makia). Dexter has a gift for comedy and a beautiful voice as she slinks around the stage offering a taste of her birch paddling stick. Tawny Betty sells biscuits and other naughty things for pence and shillings. Juba knows Mistress Paddington as Patsy from the plantation. I wanted to hear more of their story.

Quamino’s Map would benefit from a more rounded-out storyline and a longer running time. This is more of an operetta with witty comedy and a mix of genres. The opening scene could be trimmed a bit and the choreography should have been left out entirely. The chorus sings beautifully but looked stiff and uncoordinated in that long opening song. Director Kimille Howard comes to this production with experience as an assistant stage director at the Met in New York. In contrast to the opening scene, the rest of her staging is fluid and the Flesh Peddler/Lowlife number is done perfectly. The orchestra is conducted by Jeri Lynne Johnson, a decorated Maestra of music and the first Black woman conductor I have seen. The orchestra played beautifully but could have played more pianissimo when Baritone Geter was singing. His low notes got lost in the music. There are some things to smooth out but overall, it is beautiful music and acting that is worth your time.

Quamino’s Map runs for only three performances through May 1, with the last performance at 3pm today. Tickets are $20-$150. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission at the Studebaker Theater at the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave. For more information on the Chicago Opera Theater, please visit chicagooperatheater.org/. This organization brings new music and artists from the human diaspora. Remember Covid protocols in any theater performances-vaccinate, mask up, and support the arts in Chicago.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.