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How the Fisk Jubilee Singers Became an International Sensation: An Interview With Tazewell Thompson

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Jubilee at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

In April of 1873, during their first global tour, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were summoned to a smallish room in Buckingham Palace to perform a handful of spirituals for Queen Victoria. It was a landmark moment for the group, and the Queen readily requested certain tunes by name, including “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Did the Lord Deliver Daniel,” and “Go Down Moses.” Yet charmed as she was by the singers’ performance, it wasn’t the songs that struck her most forcibly. As Ella Sheppard, one of the group’s leaders, recorded in her diary, the Queen was transfixed by the singers’ variety of skin tones. “Tell the dark-skinned one to step forward,” the Queen is reported to have said to an attendant. Jennie Jackson, the singer in question, dutifully stepped forward, and Queen Victoria raised her eyeglass to inspect Jennie further.

The scene serves as an important set piece in Jubilee, the latest original work by playwright, director, and producer Tazewell Thompson, running through June 9th at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Indeed, under the Olympian gaze of Queen Victoria, the audience comes to feel scrutinized as well.

Jubilee is Thompson’s song-driven celebration of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers. It offers a condensed biography of the group, beginning with its founding at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where part of the grounds sat on a former slavers’ keep; early classes at the school scrounged funds by selling for scrap metal the various slaving instruments—chains, manacles, muzzles, iron masks, spiked neck collars—that they’d discovered in the earth. “Turning the instruments of our enslavement into the agencies of liberation,” as Sheppard puts it in Thompson’s script. The show follows the singers through their three major tours in the 1870s, as they broke some color barriers and encountered others that were less easily broken. Queen Victoria, for example, commissioned a painting of the group after they sang for her, but, as Thompson makes clear, the Queen was less interested in their artistic achievements than in their exotic appearance.

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