Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem comes alive February 25 & 26 at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
By Annamarya Scaccia
Sometimes in order to heal, you must face the past.
It’s an encumbered axiom—both wise and unnerving. And it is one to consider when experiencing the performance of “Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem” this weekend at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park.
Composed and curated by Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell, “Fortune’s Bones” tells the profound story of Fortune, an African American enslaved to a post-Colonial bone surgeon in Waterbury, Connecticut and, after his death in 1798, became his medical specimen (his skeleton was later on display at Waterbury’s Mattatuck Museum). Barnwell wrote the arrangement, which is a musical accompaniment to Marilyn Nelson’s 2004 long-form poem of the same name, after being commissioned by the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra, premiering it once in 2009 and now this weekend.
The presentation provides a provoking opportunity to understand and learn from the past. For Barnwell, it’s not only about discovering ourselves, but also gaining resolution. “This story gives us scientific proof of what occurred, and that is very important and relevant to the contemporary conversation about slavery,” says Barnwell. “If we ignore his history, we ignore our own story.”
“Fortune’s Bones”, which is the cornerstone of the Center’s season-long, Barnwell-curated project for its 10-year anniversary, will take place Feb. 25, with a Sunday afternoon encore. It features a full symphony, two choirs, seven soloists, an African bells chorus, and spirituals, plus a cantata directed by Dr. Stanley Thurston. A discussion will precede both performances.
“There are issues that [‘Fortune’s Bones’] represents that are renewed in our society today,” states Clarice Smith’s Director of Artistic Initiatives, Paul Brohan. “It is a metaphor in so many ways…We all have skeletons in our history.”
Nelson, however, may have put “Fortune’s Bones’” message best. The Connecticut poet laureate, who wrote the poem as a commission from the African American History Project Committee, struggled in Fortune’s narrative when writing lyrics for Barnwell’s composition. It didn’t come to fruition until someone asked Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh how to address hospice patients at one of his lectures. His response: tell them “you are not this body.
“As soon as he said that, I knew that is what Fortune should say,” says Nelson. “That is truth that everyone should recognize…We are not our bodies. We don’t need to be afraid of the death.”
Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem, February 25 & 26 at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, Stadium Drive & Rte. 193, College Park, MD. Tick