It's half past 7 on a dreary autumn evening, and a small group of young African-Americans begins a solemn march toward the spot of doom. They're all carrying cotton branches, which rise ostentatiously above their heads like peacock plumes. But there's nothing decorative about these thorny twigs. Cotton is a plant of pain. It's a serious shrub. As the procession nears its destination, two men and three women fan out into a circle and begin a repetitive chant.
"Limbo ... clock ... bumblebee ... JACKASS!"
Suddenly, a lone black woman emerges in the center of the circle and begins to sway, as if seized by a spirit. But it's no Holy Ghost. The woman, Virginia Creeper, evokes Prince Zandor. "Ahhhhhh, Preenze ZAAAHN-dohr!" the others repeat in a zombie monotone. Zandor, aka Ti-Jean-Petro, is a prince of darkness, a Cajun phantom, a voodoo spirit. Right now, his magic is badly needed.
"We are building a nation, we are building an erasure," exclaims Creeper, her Southern drawl conjuring at that moment both Zandor and the resurrected spirit of the abolitionist leader John Brown. "An erasure of John C. Calhoun, may he rest in peace; an erasure of the Kansas-Nebraska Act." A young black man, Sam, finally makes his appearance. He's late. And he's forgotten his cotton branch. Creeper places a hand on his shoulder.
"No!" cries John Hoomes, his own lyrical Alabama accent now stopping the action. "You've got to grab him by the scruff of the neck and drag him to the spot."
Hoomes, Nashville Opera's longtime artistic director, is meticulously rehearsing the first Nashville production of The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, which runs Friday through Sunday at the Noah Liff Opera Center. This unusual work, which is neither fully an opera nor a play, has been justifiably described as a kind of cross between Gone With the Wind and The Twilight Zone.
The story's barebones plot goes something like this:
In 1854, an Alabama planter named Williamson walks across a field and vanishes, swept into the fifth dimension of a Southern gothic Bermuda Triangle. Afterward, his wife, daughter, neighbors and voodoo-practicing slaves all struggle to comprehend his disappearance. That, for what it's worth, is the whole tale. What happened? Everyone in the story has a different opinion. "This piece raises more questions than answers," says Hoomes, who will lead discussion sessions with the audience after each show.
One thing's for certain: This weekend's performances promise to be a milestone for Nashville Opera. It will be the company's first foray into staging experimental, black-box style theater inside its sleekly modern opera center, which opened in 2009. "If this production is a success, it will pave the way for us to stage more contemporary works at the opera center," Hoomes says.
The production has already proven to be Nashville Opera's most ambitious collaboration to date. In staging the piece, Hoomes and his creative team have had to overcome the difficulties of crossing various genres. An international cast of opera singers will perform in tandem with dramatic stage actors from such companies as Tennessee Repertory Theatre and Nashville Shakespeare Festival. Local singers will appear in the chorus of slaves. And a quartet of musicians from Nashville's Grammy-nominated Alias Chamber Ensemble will perform composer David Lang's shimmering, pulsating post-minimalist score. Dean Williamson will conduct.
"A work like The Difficulty of Crossing a Field is definitely part of an emerging trend," says Williamson. "Composers and librettists are writing fewer full-fledged operas these days and are instead creating these opera-theater hybrids. The trend certainly requires artists to be more versatile."
Tenor Robert Anthony Mack, who plays the role of the slave Boy Sam, readily agrees. "The days when an opera singer could just plant himself onstage and sing are over," he says. "Stage directors now expert you to both look and act the part."
Lang and his librettist, the experimental playwright Mac Wellman, didn't set out to create a new genre of musical theater. They were simply trying to capture the spirit of "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field," a one-page gothic horror story written in 1888 by the American journalist, satirist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce. "There's a lot of ambiguity in Bierce's story," says Wellman, who, appropriately enough, discussed this gothic tale from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., as Hurricane Sandy howled outside his window. "An ambiguous story called for a work that didn't lie comfortably in either the opera or theater categories."
Born in Ohio in 1842, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce is probably best known today for his satirical lexicon The Devil's Dictionary and for his short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a surreal tale about the hanging of a Confederate sympathizer near the end of the American Civil War. No less a literary giant than Kurt Vonnegut declared "Owl Creek" to be the greatest American short story of all time. Rod Serling apparently agreed. In 1964, he aired director Robert Enrico's Cannes Film Festival award-winning adaptation of the story on The Twilight Zone. It was the first and only time a foreign art film was used as a substitute for one of the popular TV series' regular episodes.
Bierce's stories often dealt with horror and the Civil War. He was, of course, an expert on both subjects. A fervent abolitionist, he enlisted in the Union Army's 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment at the outbreak of the Civil War. He fought in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, and he recounted his terrifying experiences in short stories and in his memoir, What I Saw of Shiloh. Two years later, he suffered a grievous head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He spent the balance of the conflict recuperating.
After the war, Bierce eventually moved to San Francisco, where he quickly became one of the West Coast's best-known and most controversial journalists. He was one of William Randolph Hearst's first columnists at the San Francisco Examiner. His columns attacking powerful interests, especially in the railroad industry, made lasting enemies. "Bierce had to pack a pistol with him wherever he went," says Wellman, who has written extensively on Bierce.
In his fiction, Bierce developed a minimalist style that was full of dark images, vague time references and ambiguous plot lines. Unlike his more famous contemporary, Mark Twain, he shunned novel writing. "Bierce was convinced that a novel was just a short story with padding," says Wellman. There was certainly no filling in "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field." First published in the San Francisco Examiner on Oct. 14, 1888, the entire story is just 752 words long.
It was perhaps only fitting that Bierce's own fate seemed to parallel his fiction. He was purportedly touring Mexico as an observer in Pancho Villa's army in 1913 when he disappeared. Rumors later circulated that he was shot by a firing squad, but the claim has never been substantiated. For all intents and purposes, Bierce seemingly vanished, like the planter in his story, into the torn fabric of space and time.