January 7, 2019
The themes that composer Scott Joplin was exploring in his masterwork “Treemonisha” — feminism and black aspiration — struck Leah-Simone Bowen as so ahead of their time that the opportunity to give them a new context for 21st-century audiences struck her as impossible to pass up.
“That it’s essentially a conversation within an African community,” the playwright said. “That it’s about a black woman leading — and that she’s chosen to lead? It’s really subversive.”
And that these ideas were planted in a musical piece 108 years ago by an African American composer who never saw it blossom made the challenge for the Canadian writer and colleagues in the United States all the more irresistible.
As a result, arts institutions from across the continent and the Atlantic — among them, Washington Performing Arts — have invested in an endeavor that Bowen and like-minded artists are now developing: an expansively reimagined “Treemonisha,” for which only a piano and vocal score exists, in the Library of Congress. Although the work finally reached the stage in 1972 and is occasionally revived with its schematic original story, no one has tried, the creative team says, to significantly alter its narrative infrastructure in hopes of reaching a wider audience.
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