Hackney Empire, London.
Louis Armstrong’s beaming smile in the corridor of ‘London’s most beautiful theatre’ serves as a reminder of its pedigree. The innovative trumpeter was here in 1934, but the trail blazed by African-American performers in Britain years before the marketing of the music known as jazz also included the gospel ensemble, Fisk Jubilee Singers.
This excellent production tells the story of the birth of the group in segregationist America in the 1870s, its courageous tour in said land of the free and home of the brave and subsequent triumphant appearance before the great and the good abroad. At the behest of the philanthropist Earl of Shaftesbury, The Fisk singers performed for Queen Victoria and William Gladstone before sweeping all before them in Europe, India and Japan. Their talent proved irresistible in a world that still resisted equality.
Justin Butcher’s text establishes a clear, sharp narrative, highlighting the indignities suffered by ‘Negro’ artists as well as the resolve of their white patrons, such as George White and Clinton B. Fisk, while Harvey Brough’s score for a vocal quartet that comprises soprano Emily Dankworth, alto Christina Gill, tenor Wills Morgan and bass Michael Henry has the right amount of intensity and sobriety to do justice to the subject matter. Filling the stage behind them are Vox Holloway & Hackney Community Choir and Riverside School Singers while a rhythm section that includes double bassist Neil Charles and guitarist Mike Outram ensures this gargantuan swell of sound is well anchored by a beat that shifts in and out of gospel, R&B and jazz.
However, the masterstroke is the deployment of multi-reedist Finn Peters. He solos liberally on many of the songs to become a kind of wandering spirit in the show, thus reinforcing the central themes of movement, change and challenge to the status quo. Notable as the individual performances are this is very much a triumph of the ensemble, which also underlines the raison d’etre of Fisk. The group was founded in order to raise funds for one of the first American institutions to educate people of colour. It is something to think about as patrons file out after a standing ovation, and put their hands in their pockets for charities collecting for victims of modern-day slavery. Pic: Nick Rutter.
Kevin Le Gendre