Rivers to Cross is an admirable play that takes you on a wistful journey of black history, over a time period of 174 years. The atmosphere of the play is set as commemorative, yet at the same time accusing of the audience and through the use of multimedia and contemporary dance and song, Gazebo Theatre Company introduces many unknown, black characters to the audience’s knowledge. While listening to the song ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ before I watched the play, I felt the hardships and suffering that black people have faced throughout the 174 year journey. I felt the song was symbolic of a unity that had suffered racism and prejudice to a major extent, but still had faith. To me, this was very poignant.
As previously mentioned, the play introduced many famous black individuals of the past that were relatively unknown to today’s audience. Some characters of the play included Ira Aldridge, Walter Tull, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Dr Harold Moody, Paul Robeson and Barack Obama. I believe the most innovative part of the play is that the production focuses primarily on British history as well as American history, which I thought was shown as insightful and profound, to a subject that has barely been touched upon.
Although I believe the production was admirable, I thought the story was little confusing at times and could have been made improved, something I would have definitely done if I had the chance. Around the start of the play we see a young boy affected by the London riots stumble upon a museum and become ‘possessed’ and therefore showing him the past of black history. I didn’t enjoy watching the story of the riots being portrayed, especially so soon after the actual event, as it made me think that it had been added to the production quickly and in a short space of time, therefore making the play seem a little bit ‘cheap’.
It also made me feel that Gazebo Theatre Company were trying too hard to relate to their audience though an issue that everyone had experienced, which I thought they could have done better in a though a different way. Another thing I disliked about this particular production was that the main character became possessed, allowing him to see and experience his ancestors past. I supposed that this supernatural element of the play didn’t fit well with the historical accuracy and educational elements, and the story could have been told through a father-son conversation, which would have touched upon a key theme in the play.
Unlike others, I enjoyed the beginning of the play in which a man carried a small coffin onto the stage, accompanied by emotional music. Even though this didn’t have much to do with the rest of the play, it foreshadowed what the play was going to be about and also acted as metaphor for the black community finally putting their sensitive past at ‘rest’ – I thought this was ingenious and inspiring.
Many aims of the production were touched upon throughout the play. Some of these included educational purposes, father-son relationship between the two characters, sharing awareness and celebrating English history rather than the USA’s. I believe the father-son relationship theme/aim to be inspirational, since it was a well-crafted idea that celebrated black ancestors life’s through the ‘passing down’ of stories between two men. This was endearing to me yet it could have been improved by being brought into the actual story, in my opinion.
A main prop of the production was the use of multimedia that acted as a kind of ‘backdrop’ for the production. It was used cleverly to display historic moments and pictures, and also well-known characters. To use multimedia in a production is a different and original thing to do, which added to my praise for the play. I thought the best part of the use of multimedia was when the character of Othello walked off-stage behind the screen, and then appeared on the screen – this worked well as it was unexpected and was in sync, unlike other parts of the play. The use of multimedia could have added to the confusion as it often showed black people singing soulfully while holding a child, I was unsure of what this symbolised and even though it affected the lighting a little, I believed that this didn’t affect the production in whole.
The use of contemporary dance and song was also a good way to get across the educational story, while also intriguing the audience into the pioneering performance. The contemporary dance acted as a way of telling the story without words – similar to ballet yet with more of a modern feel and I believe this to be an advantageous part of the play as it was different and unexpected also. The use of song was less appreciated by me due to the fact that it diminished the enjoyment of the original ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ by putting a futuristic observation on it. As well as this, the videos to the song were more like a video to an awful R&B song, reminiscent of the 90’s. I would have definitely taken this part of the production out.
The actors gave an enthralling performance since together; they had good accents, vocals, physical presence, emotion and historical accuracy. Even though one was tangibly stronger than the other, they both excelled in their own ways throughout the play. To conclude, I believe the production to be of emotional depth that celebrates and shares the history of black people without it being forced upon us, yet at times it seems to me that the audience are put at fault and blamed for the struggles black people have faced – which I feel is unfair. I would give the play a 7/10 rating.