`Orlandus' brings a famed quartet to new audiences

The story of jubilee spirituals at Morgan

Stage: theater, music, dance

October 30, 2003|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

From their mouths and hearts sprang songs both achingly beautiful and inspiring -- influencing genres from jazz to rap, and praise from musical peers such as Elvis Presley.

Yet the Golden Gate Quartet, and the style of music they first made famous in the 1930s, known as jubilee spirituals, remain largely unknown to younger, contemporary audiences.

A new play with music, Orlandus, making its world premiere next week at Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts Center, could change all that.

With a cast that includes members of Morgan's acclaimed choir and Cecilia Calloway, daughter of Baltimore jazz legend Cab Calloway, these sounds will be introduced to a whole new generation.

"We want as many people exposed to the music and this story as possible," says playwright/producer Dean Strober. "I knew it would be a great success in a city like Baltimore, where the audience can identify with what the play explores."

Told through the eyes of primary member Orlandus Wilson, Orlandus chronicles the highs, lows, friendships, losses and tenacity of the Golden Gate Quartet. Hailing from rural Virginia, these four young men set the music world afire with a new style of singing, characterized by rich harmony, driving syncopation and vocal percussion.

They appeared on national radio, wowed Carnegie Hall and would become the first black musicians to perform at Constitution Hall, an honor previously denied to opera great Marian Anderson.

Yet they grappled with the racial and political climate of that era and various musical and personal challenges.

The playwright, initially inspired by the quartet's music in the 1948 Danny Kaye film A Song is Born, encountered his own trials bringing the production to life.

"My first misguided belief was that because I was white, young and Jewish, I was unqualified to write this play myself," explains Strober, a 30-year-old native of upstate New York, who acts in TV and film and whose credits include co-managing such top Broadway shows as Thoroughly Modern Millie, Annie Get Your Gun and Mamma Mia!

"I looked for another playwright but couldn't find the right fit," he says. "The whole process has taken me seven years. This became my baby."

With the encouragement of director Dwight R.B. Cook, (affiliated with Lincoln Center's Theatre Lab and the National Black Theatre), Strober began the painstaking research and writing process of his first play.

Besides extensive research, he even traveled to Wilson's Paris home to meet him in person and hear his story of the group. When the singer passed away in 1998, Strober, who'd become his friend, spoke at his funeral in Norfolk, Va.

At that time, he says, the bigger picture in the Orlandus story emerged.

"It's a more universal story that examines the struggles all artists face," says Strober. "The history of racism in our country, and the quartet's significant influence in American music. Orlandus joined the quartet to pursue his dream. He achieved and sustained it."

Based in France since the 1950s, the Golden Gate Quartet has changed faces over the years (Orlandus was the last original member), but not its course.

A new album was released in September, and the quartet continues to tour extensively throughout Europe. In 2004, the group will celebrate its 70th anniversary.

Orlandus was selected for presentation at the 2002 International Festival of Musical Theatre in Cardiff, Wales. After the Baltimore run, the play will have dates in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago and a reading in New York.

From there, anything is possible.

"Off-Broadway, Broadway ... whatever comes out critically, artistically and commercially," says Strober, "I know I've done all I can."

"Orlandus" runs from Wednesday through Nov. 16 at the Murphy Fine Arts Center, 2201 Argonne Drive, on the campus of Morgan State University. Show times vary. Tickets are $5-$15 and are available at the Morgan box office (443-885-1522), Ticketmaster (410-481-SEAT), at all Ticketmaster outlets or at www.ticketmaster.com.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 42.

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