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The art of the opposition: Valley music and theater groups respond to Donald Trump’s inauguration

  • Chris Brashear and Ben Demerath will perform together at “In It Together.”

  • At far right, Mister Sun, part of the lineup for “In It Together”

  • Valley Jazz Divas

  • Charles Neville and his quartet, will bring jazz and rhythm & blues to the Academy stage.

  • Wistaria String Quartet will add some classical music to the Jan. 18 show.

  • John Sheldon, who will perform in the Eastworks show, says he will likely play songs relatedto his trip last year to the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota.

  • Attorney Bill Newman, director of the ACLU's Western Massachusetts Legal Office, says the Easthampton event is designed to address concrete steps people can take to safeguard democracy. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2017

Donald Trump’s election to the presidency spurred nationwide protests last November, and his inauguration Jan. 20 is slated to produce others, like the Women’s March on Washington scheduled for the following day.

Here in the Valley, Trump’s impending presidency has also been viewed by many as the beginning of a bleak era, in which immigrant rights, civil liberties and environmental protection may be targeted. But some see the arts as a means for bringing people together to lift collective spirits and help forge a unified response to Trump’s administration.

Two shows on the eve of the president-elect’s inauguration aim to do just that.

On Jan. 18, Watermelon Wednesdays, the summertime concert program that brings acoustic music to the West Whately Chapel, offers its first show outside Whately with a benefit concert for a local progressive fund. Five musical acts, from Americana to classical to jazz, are on the bill.

And on Jan. 19, Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble will feature what organizers call a “structured improvisation” in which a variety of artists and activists will perform or discuss their personal reactions to Trump’s win and talk about ways to protect things like civil liberties. Proceeds from the event will be donated to the American Civil Liberties Union.

A movement, with music

Paul Newlin, founder and director of Watermelon Wednesdays (www.watermelonwednesdays.com), says the “In It Together” concert, which takes place at Northampton’s Academy of Music at 7:30 p.m., draws inspiration from the civil rights era, in the sense that music can help forge solidarity and fight the sense of foreboding many people are currently feeling.

Civil rights veteran and longtime Georgia congressman John Lewis, Newlin said, once remarked that “ ‘A movement without music is like a bird without wings.’ I like to think of this show as way of bringing harmony to discord.”

And Sheryl Stoodley, the longtime director of Serious Play!, says “In the Dark Times There Will Be Singing,” which takes place at Eastworks in Easthampton at 8 p.m., is about “not sitting around and moaning, but instead inviting people to join together to think about ways of protecting the things we believe are important.”

Newlin, who started Watermelon Wednesdays in 2000, has long hosted a post-Thanksgiving party at his Whately home with musical friends (he’s a guitarist and fiddler himself) as well as attendees of his concert series. This past fall, the party took on a different atmosphere in the wake of the Nov. 8 election.

“We were all feeling pretty shell-shocked,” Newlin said. “I don’t think too many people I knew thought Trump would win.”

But an even stronger theme emerged: to bring people together to respond in a positive way to all the ugliness and divisiveness of the election. What better way could there be to do that, he says, than through music?

“We’re facing very uncertain times,” said Newlin, who teaches economics at Keene State University in Keene, New Hampshire. “I think music can be an antidote to the kinds of anxieties a lot of people are experiencing. It can be a powerful statement, especially when we play together.”

“I want this show,” Newlin added, “to reflect our diversity. We’re a diverse country.”

Needed: More empathy

Along those lines, the Jan. 18 show will feature two acoustic roots acts. Guitarist, fiddler and mandolin player Chris Brashear, who lives in Amherst but tours nationally with other groups, will join longtime Valley singer-songwriter Ben Demerath in an opening duet. Also on the bill is Mister Sun, an Americana string band led by noted fiddle player Darol Anger.

Brashear, who’s both a past performer at Watermelon Wednesdays and a member of the group’s board of directors, said in an email that an integral role of the arts “is to create deeper empathy and understanding.” The Jan. 18 show, he noted, gives the Whately concert series a way “to step outside of its usually smaller confines ... and demonstrate leadership in the Pioneer Valley in the musical arts.”

At the concert, jazz and rhythm & blues get their due with the Charles Neville Quartet, led by the noted saxophone player and member of the famed Neville Brothers. The Valley Jazz Divas — Barbara Ween, Jill Connolly, and Carol Abbe Smith — will close the event and also lead the audience in a few sing-alongs, Newlin said.

Classical music is on the agenda, as well: The Wistaria String Quartet, which is affiliated with Amherst College, will perform selections from Tchaikovsky, Alessandro Scarlatti and Florence Price.

Newlin says audience members will be asked to make a donation to the Markham-Nathan Fund, a Northampton philanthropy that donates funds to local social and economic justice groups. Any concert revenues remaining after expenses for the musicians and the Academy are accounted for will also be given to the fund, Newlin added.

Staging “In It Together” is something of a gamble, he noted. He normally plans his shows far more in advance than this one, and the Academy is a much-larger venue than the cozy West Whately Chapel. But, he says, the times call for different thinking.

“I’m so glad we have each other [in the Valley],” Newlin said. “We’ve got to amplify this.”

Singing through ‘dark times’

Stoodley, the Serious Play! director, says she and her husband, Robin Doty, have also had to scramble to put together the Jan. 19 event at Eastworks. With many people on vacation or away for the holidays, she said with a laugh, “it’s been like herding cats — everyone’s going in different directions.”

But as of earlier this week, Stoodley had gotten commitments from more than a dozen people, including poets Doug Anderson, Martín Espada and Richard Michelson; guitarist and composer John Sheldon and jazz singer Evelyn Harris; theater artist Rand Foerster; activists Bill Newman and Robert and Ellen Meeropol.

The presenters, who have previous connections to Serious Play!, will each have several minutes to do a performance or speak, Stoodley said. Those presentations aren’t being screened in advance, she notes, which is why she calls the event an example of “structured improvisation.”

Sheldon, for instance, said he would likely play some songs related to his trip late last year to the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota to protest construction of an oil pipeline through Native American lands.

“The focus of the event is to connect with each other and the audience around how to use our work, music, poetry, storytelling, drama, to address this time we are living in,” he wrote in an email.

The event’s title references a line from a play by Bertolt Brecht, the early 20th-century German playwright and poet who fled Nazi Germany and once wrote “In the dark times / will there also be singing?”

“We wanted to make that idea more proactive,” Stoodley said.

Taking concrete steps

Newman, a Northampton attorney, radio show host and head of the western Massachusetts office of the ACLU, said the event is designed to address concrete steps people concerned about a Trump administration can take to safeguard democracy. From his perspective, one of the most serious concerns has been Trump’s denigration of the media and the rise of phony news stories.

“His ability to manipulate and control the media is one of the greatest challenges we face,” Newman said. “If we don’t confront him, he will have the only microphone and megaphone around.”

Stoodley notes that “In These Dark Times” got its initial push from Anderson, the poet, who co-founded an earlier incarnation of Serious Play! with her and Doty. In the wake of Trump’s win, she said, Anderson got in touch with her about staging some kind of event.

“He didn’t want to be alone,” she said. “I think that’s how a lot of us are feeling.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“In It Together” takes place Jan. 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $26.75 at aomtheatre.ticketfly.com or $25 at the Academy box office or via phone at 584-9032.

“In These Dark Times” takes place Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. in the first floor community room at Eastworks in Easthampton. Tickets cost $10. For information, visit the Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble’s Facebook page.