When the Lyric Opera of Chicago recently debuted the highly acclaimed show "Fire Shut Up in My Bones" (based on the 2014 memoir of the same name by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow), it was a rare production featuring a majority-Black cast and director, and only the second work by a Black composer to be performed on the Lyric’s main stage.
It also happens to be led by two former Joyce Award winners.
Grammy Award-winning composer Terence Blanchard, a 2017 Joyce Award winner for a collaboration with Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio, created “Fire” in 2019. It opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021-2022 season, marking the first-ever work by a Black composer to be staged there. Award-winning choreographer Camille A. Brown, a 2014 Joyce Award recipient for a collaboration with DANCE Cleveland, is the show’s co-director and choreographer.
Blanchard and Brown are the latest examples of Joyce Award winners whose work continues to garner national and international acclaim. The Joyce Awards were created in 2003 and remains the only regional program dedicated to supporting artists of color in major Great Lakes cities. The $75,000 award supports artists and commissioning organizations in creating and producing significant new works.
While in Chicago preparing for a dress rehearsal in advance of the March 24 opening of “Fire,” Blanchard reflected on the role philanthropy plays in artist development for new projects.
“That support is crucial; that’s how these stories get told, that’s how these pieces are put together. When ("Fire") opened at the Met, everybody kept talking about how I was the first African American to have a production there. Nobody talked about the African Americans who supported the Met for so many years and how much that support meant to the institution,” Blanchard said. “The Joyce Awards in many ways does the same. That support and recognition allows us to simply focus on the work, where we don’t have to worry about commerce to totally fund these projects.”
“Sometimes commerce has a weird way of affecting choices…when you take that out of the picture then it really becomes about the story. It becomes about creating. When you take that away and go deep into the production it creates the buzz because now you have something that’s honest and real that people can experience and grow from,” Blanchard said. “So that support allows us to just focus on creating something that hopefully will withstand the test of time.”
The Joyce Awards have been catalytic in advancing the careers of artists of color across disciplines and includes recipients who’ve subsequently received MacArthur “Genius” grants, Pulitzer Prizes, Doris Duke Artist Awards, Academy Awards, and, like Blanchard, Grammy Awards.
With a title drawn from the Old Testament story of the “weeping prophet” Jeremiah, “Fire” is a moving examination of New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s traumatic upbringing in Louisiana, where Blanchard is also a native. Similar to works such as his first opera “Champion” and his Joyce Award-winning project inspired by the 1965 Voting Rights Act (“OUR VOICES: DEMOCRACY RE:visited”), Blanchard said he was drawn to “Fire” because of the resilience of the protagonist and the themes of prevailing over injustice.
“A lot of us consider ourselves to be Christians or followers of certain types of faith and the basis of all of those faiths is love and compassion,” Blanchard said. “But for some reason when it comes to the real world application of those ideals, they get lost in the midst of our biases. So for me, I’m always trying to draw attention to these things.”
“When you hear these powerful, captivating voices it’s hard not to be moved. I wrote it; it took me two years to write. I know every note of it and I still get moved when I hear these people perform. It’s something that I get excited about because I love the idea of creating something that allows these voices to show their talents and display what it is they can do,” he said.
The beauty of being allowed to stretch in this medium for “Fire” is the combination of traditional classical elements of opera with the Black artistic traditions of R&B and jazz, as well as contemporary dance, courtesy of Brown’s choreography. The Tony-nominated Brown didn’t make it to the Chicago premiere of “Fire” because she is in New York City preparing for her own highly anticipated Broadway directorial debut of the revival of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.” (known familiarly as “For Colored Girls”). Brown is the first Black woman in 65 years to direct and choreograph a Broadway show.
“Social dance for social change is reclaiming Black narratives, giving African Diaspora culture its rightful place in American culture, fostering learning and creativity and spreading the joy of dance,” Brown said. “It aims to create safe spaces for healing and connection and a creative environment for leadership building and consciousness-raising.”
Blanchard said despite both of their considerable accolades at this point in their careers, their humility stems from their sustained connection to community, and understanding themselves as vessels for the culture who get to do what they love as a result of continued public, private and philanthropic support.
“Camille and myself are two examples of what makes the Joyce Awards so important. Two people who come from the community who never thought we’d be doing this work on this level. To see what she’s doing now, she’s a genius,” Blanchard said of Brown. “I love how she incorporates all aspects of dance, which is what we’re trying to do with the music. She can take street dance, she can take formal dance, ballet and put it all together to create this unique thing that everyone loves.”
“Fire Shut Up in My Bones” runs through April 8 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Joyce Foundation is a sponsor of the show.
About The Joyce Foundation
Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.