Off-Broadway Dance/Opera Review: WATCH NIGHT (World Premiere at Perelman Performing Arts Center)

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by Gregory Fletcher on November 8, 2023

in Dance,Theater-New York


Bill Rauch, who guided the Oregon Shakespeare Festival from 2007 to 2019, is now the inaugural artistic director of the Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC). The first commissioned production under his watch is Watch Night, a major new work composed by Tamar-kali, with a libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and directed/choreographed by Bill T. Jones which opened today, November 8. The contemporary, modern opera (co-conceived by Jones and Joseph, with dramaturgy by Lauren Whitehead) is also an important theatrical event as the inaugural production of PAC NYC, located directly next to One World Trade Center. An exterior grand staircase leads up to the state-of-the-art building, which houses the flexible black-box theater that can be expanded or reconfigured in over sixty possible theater shapes and sizes.


Adam Rigg’s scenic design arranges the space into an alleyway configuration where the audience is seated on two opposite sides of a rectangular stage. Discarded papers litter the stage and audience aisleways. Being across the street from the former World Trade Center Towers and the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to wonder if these are the papers that floated down from the gaping holes in the defiled towers.


Watch Night centers itself on two acts of violence loosely based on a Charleston church and a Pittsburgh synagogue where white supremacists murdered black and Jewish congregants. Performed without an intermission and lasting a little over two hours, many heavy issues loom over the performance that are also fitting for the former tragic site of 2001. Is forgetting acts of violence possible? What if we forgive the wrong people? What if we choose to live with race rage and antisemitism? And how is forgiving even truly possible? Such relevant, complicated questions are triggered throughout the performance. For those who have been emotionally frozen in any traumatic aftermath of unthinkable acts, answers may still be unresolved by the curtain call, but the issues will linger.

Tamar-kali’s operatic score (played by eight musicians and conducted by musical director Adam Rothenberg) is filled with many styles of composition: classical, spiritual, gospel, non-traditional atonal, melodic, and even bursting with slam poetry. The singers are outstanding, grounded, and, mixed with the emotions that emanate from the libretto, powerful. At the top of the list is Brandon Michael Nase as Josh, the reporter who works to break the story with an all-inclusive that will guarantee a Hollywood film. His brother, Saul (Arri Lawton Simon) visits to keep him in check but his untimely visit scars Josh’s work. Shayla (Danyel Fulton) is a congregant who has a hard time letting go, which changes her life forever. Her Pastor, Winters (Sola Fadiran), along with the Rabbi of a nearby Synagogue, Rabine (Brian Golub), try to lead their congregations out of the violent terrorism. And Ms. Summers (Jill Paice), a 10th-grade teacher of a white supremacist, Ms. Laura (Josette Elaine Newsam), a lone survivor, and the Super/Natural twin forces (Ken Alston Jr. and Onyie Nwachukwu) move through the aftermath trying to make sense of it all.

The dance corps is one of the busiest ensembles currently performing in NYC. Amanda Bailey, Royer Bockus, Chelsea Nicole Green, Ariel Neydavoud, Oneika Phillips, Devin L. Roberts, Jonathan McClinton Smith, and Miguel Ángel Vásquez are all noteworthy singers and dancers, but also the wide variety of ensembles they embody is impressive, from a Church choir to inmates on death row, the media, white supremacist followers, and more.


And then there’s The Wolf, a murdering white supremacist played by Kevin Csolak. From his first entrance in a hoody, he slowly turns to both sides of the audience, and, within this silent moment, he personifies enough terror to send chills up your spine. An accomplished triple threat, Csolak is powerful whether he’s slamming a poetic monologue from his jail cell or quietly confessing his belief in white supremacy.


The bloodstained costumes by Kara Harmon and the digital projections by Lucy Mackinnon that scroll along the sides of the theater space, emphasizing words and lyrics in repetition, remind us all — “We Remember.”


There’s a lot to admire with the direction and choreography of Mr. Jones, whose staging utilizes the entire space, encircling the audience and cutting through the aisleways. His storytelling comes across as minimalist, busy, and grand at the same time. As compelling as it is, something is lacking — and more than just an intermission. For better or worse, the show leaves us unresolved and lugubrious. As difficult as it is to ignore the butt barometer that engages with its own opinion as you shift in your seat to find comfort, maybe discomfort is the goal. After grappling with the issues and questions being stirred about, the heaviness will follow you out of the theater and lurk amongst the darkness of the 9/11 memorial, questioning your own forgiveness — or the lack thereof.

production photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
poster photo by Jai Lennard

Watch Night
a PAC NYC Production and Commission
Perelman Performing Arts Center’s John E. Zuccotti Theater
World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, 251 Fulton Street
ends on November 18, 2023
for tickets (starting at $39), call 212.266.3000 or visit PACNYC

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