'Freedom Cabaret' at Ontario's Stratford Festival

Stratford Festival

Stratford Festival Site

David Rabjohn

(By David Rabjohn, Associate writer for Our Theatre Voice)

The “Cabaret” series continues at the Stratford outdoor festival with a rousing display of black music surrounding the theme of freedom. Program notes suggest that black music, from its beginnings of Negro spirituals through to contemporary rap music have always been closely associated with the need and longing for freedom. Curated, directed and music directed by the versatile Beau Dixon, the night’s agenda is remarkably far-ranging and thorough. The result is an entertaining evening of both introspection and joyful celebration.

Joining Dixon’s vigorous performance are three outstanding voices that both contrast and compliment. Robert Ball’s beautiful voice is on full display with the haunting “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Alana Bridgewater’s strength and range is demonstrated with an animated “Hound Dog” that had some males in the front row fearfully hanging on to their seats. Her versatility is displayed in the powerful “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” by Thomas Dorsey. Camille Eanga-Selenge’s high soaring voice captivated the audience in a number of selections.

The evening had a true “cabaret” style feel to it with some high barstool seating and a rustic circular stage with red drapery. Dixon’s opening wail on the harp produced the infectious beginning. The band was strong from the outset with a large dose of rhythm with both a full drum kit and a diversified percussion set managed deftly by the bandaged fingers of Joe Bowden.

Dixon’s research must have been exhaustive. He found dozens of gems that did indeed reflect the constant yearning for freedom. Traditional songs such as “Hold On” represented the working slave who is holding on to the plow that is both killing him and keeping him alive. The evening moves through hits by black writers which are both acclaimed and less well known. You realize it will be an entertaining night when the program lists Lead Belly, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce and Sam Cooke numbers. Bob Marley was well represented and, as the singers warn us – he is not just a touchstone for stoned hippies. The tragedy of black music being appropriated into the mainstream was subtly but strongly observed.
Some narrative about black musicians losing their political messages and the issues of racism in general gave some sobering support to the program. The genius in this support was that it was not consuming, and the big messages were left to the songs and the musicality to tell their own story.

Returning to the singers (the heart of the program) solos were not the only fare. Gorgeous harmonies carved out some rich numbers. Back up voices were equally important, especially under the tutelage of Dixon’s entertaining conducting. A nod should go to the technical engineers as outdoor programming must create special challenges. The evening’s message is that the history of black music and musicians is deep, rich, and very closely connected to freedom in all its forms. And the entertainment was elevating!
‘Freedom Cabaret’ curated and directed by Beau Dixon closed September 5 but will stream virtual selections October 14 – December 3, 2021. For further information, please visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.

Photo of Alana Bridgewater and members of company of ‘Freedom Cabaret’ by David Hou.

Produced by The Stratford Festival
Performers: Robert Ball, Alana Bridgewater, Beau Dixon, Camille Eangu-Selenge, Gavin Hope.
Band: Beau Dixon, Rohan Staton, Roger Williams, Paul Antonio, Joe Bowden
Lighting Design: Kaileigh Krysztofiak
Sound Design: Peter McBoyle

Abstract Building
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