Take the genius of a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, the superb talents of four very gifted playwrights, the theatrical brilliance of an internationally renowned troupe, a very talented musical ensemble and the legend of a big man in more ways than one and what have you got? The powerful Steel Hammer, which plays Friday and Saturday at Oz Arts Nashville (6172 Cockrill Bend Circle). How do I know? Because I had the somewhat bewildered pleasure of seeing this extraordinary work in 2014 at the 38th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays (production pictures in this article are from that festival appearance) and I unconditionally encourage theatergoers to see this brief Nashville run.
I say “somewhat bewildered” because a lot gets thrown at you during the course of a highly energetic, repetitive-for-reinforcement’s-sake and jam-packed performance; and if actors could ever be said to run a marathon during the course of a show, they run one in this piece! But beneath the exhausting physicality (there for good reason, I assure you, though I’ll allow attendees to discover that meaning for themselves), there’s a great deal to digest, not just about American folklore but themes touching individuality and community that are ultimately the stuff of reality and not legend. I got to read the script after seeing the show and found it a great help to my understanding of the overall work, but I promise there’s much to take in and enjoy without such assistance.
Here’s the background: Julia Wolfe, who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Anthracite Fields, composed the 2009 art ballad Steel Hammer (which was nominated for a 2010 Pulitzer) after being inspired by myriad versions of the John Henry legend. That in turn inspired director Anne Bogart to oversee a project that now involves Wolfe’s music as played by the Bang on A Can All-Stars and lyrics sung by Emily Eagem, Katie Geissinger and Molly Quinn while six actors from SITI Company (Akiko Aizawa, Eric Berryman, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Gian-Murray Gianino, Barney O’Hanlon and Stephen Duff Webber) perform four texts commissioned for this production – “Tunnel Tale” by Kia Corthron, “Migrant Mamie Remembers John Henry” by Carl Hancock Rux, “John Henry, Polly Ann” by Will Power and “John” by Regina Taylor.
The production features scenic & costume design by James Schuette, lighting by Brian Scott, sound design by Andrew Cotton and Christian Frederickson and choreography by SITI stalwart O’Hanlon.
“Steel Hammer was really inspired by my love for the legends and music of Appalachia,” Wolfe says in press materials for the show. “It’s a return to my musical roots in folk music, and when I wrote the piece, I looked to the breadth of musicianship in the Bang on a Can All-Stars. I was also moved by the myriad of songsters, some known, some not-so-known, who filled my ears with their own personal versions of the John Henry ballad.”
“Steel Hammer is nothing less than a meeting of hearts, minds and bodies: Julia Wolfe’s extraordinary music composition, the brilliance of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the fluency of four remarkable playwrights and the shared sensibilities of SITI Company’s actors and designers,” says Bogart in those same press materials.
Performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.). Running time is approximately 115 minutes with no intermission. Tickets (which have been selling fast) begin at $60 and can be purchased at www.ozartsnashville.org. UPDATE AS OF NOON CENTRAL ON 11/20: A few tickets remain for today’s performance but Saturday’s show is now sold out. If you want to see this incredible work buy now!
*Photos by Craig Schwartz, Peter Serling and Michael Brosilow courtesy Actors Theatre of Louisville.