By Sean Yoes, AFRO Baltimore Editor, [email protected]
I had the opportunity recently, along with a handful of other reporters, to sit in on one of the first rehearsals for the Center Stage production of “SOUL The Stax Musical,” the final play of the 2017/2018 season.
Kwame Kwei-Armah, the former artistic director of Center Stage, is back to direct this towering story focused on the mythical Stax Records, one of the most important record labels in American history, during one of the most volatile periods in U.S. history, the end of the 1960’s and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
During this rehearsal (the cast seems as if it had been working together for several weeks, instead of just a few days), the charismatic Armah is whipping his actors into a kinetic mosaic of soulful song and dance, as he moves about singing, dancing and coaching. And they were only getting warmed up.
Armah may not have been able to choose a more appropriate and timely Baltimore curtain call, as the world continues to reflect upon the 50th anniversary of King’s murder in Memphis. SOUL captures the nation as it erupts after King’s assassination.
“The first act is Otis (Redding) and Sam and Dave and those kinds of songs. And the second act of ‘Stax’ is Isaac Hayes and is the Staple Singers and is really kind of Black consciousness music,” said Armah during a short break from the play’s rehearsal.
“It’s a generation that’s saying, `Okay, we don’t want to just sing about getting down…the marketplace wants to hear more about our sense of being amid, particularly post King dying.’ Once King died the game changed. In my humble opinion…when Malcolm was assassinated…there was kind of an expectation he would be assassinated. But, when King got assassinated, he was the peacemaker.”
SOUL also illuminates the Stax studio process, which produced some of the most transcendent songs in the history of popular music.
“The process of creating any narrative…is the process of creating scaffolds and then taking them down. We’ve been in the process of scaffolding, trying to find a story…that is truthful, but not a documentary,” Armah said. “To find the essence of this magic box, which was the Stax studio…how do we portray there was magic in that space. And the magic is geopolitical, the magic is physical, the magic is political. Ultimately, the story of a record label is hard to tell in a dramatic fashion.”
There is no doubt the Stax odyssey is one of the most important in the history of American music, producing a catalogue crafted by legendary musicians. But, for me, Isaac Hayes was extraordinary among the extraordinary, for reasons beyond the pure genius of his music. It is a sentiment Armah seems to be in agreement with.
“Let’s be real…when you look at the film “Wattsstax,” (the 1972 documentary that captured the concert that marked the seventh anniversary of the 1965 L.A. riots) and you see him walk onto the stage in gold chains, gold chains, with his bald head and standing majestically in a Nubian stance…so he was sending out signals with his very being, before he started to rock the mic,” Armah said.
“And then when he underscored the anthem of an era, which is “Shaft,” that combination of that Black hero…that was the Wakanda of its day, that was the Black Panther of its day, we had never seen that in that way before. I think that he’s the kind of icon….at that period of time he represented Blackness in its entirety, in a proud upstanding way. He’s a hero.”
The story of Stax is the story of Black people fighting for survival in a country that seemed antithetical to their existence. Music was, and always has been, our elixir, our salve, our salvation.
At that time [the Wattstax concert]…there were riots in the city years before. And for a label to say, `What we’re going to do is…we’re going to take over the [Los Angeles] Coliseum and we’re going to put our acts on and we’re going to fill it and…we’re going to charge people a dollar. And that’s our statement,” Armah said. “That’s our contribution to the struggle…it’s heroic stuff that they were wrestling with. Music was their weapon and they used it.”
Sean Yoes is AFRO Baltimore editor and host and executive producer of the AFRO First Edition video podcast, which airs Monday and Friday at 5 p.m., on the AFRO’s Facebook page.