A message in sound and words is what Vanessa German promises to audiences who attend her two-day showing of her one-woman show, “Root” at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater April 1-2.
“I wanted to create something because I love words and the musicality of words and their sounds. They make their own form of communication. I wanted to put my love and passion for words into a spoken word opera,” said German who hails from Los Angeles but currently resides in Homewood.
“Root” transports the audience from 1980’s Los Angeles back to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memphis, storming forward toward Louisiana and lastly into modern-day jazz. It explores the role of poet and audience in relation to the ritual of theater. The music of the 65-minute piece is inspired by the music of Ella Fitzgerald and uses the Mississippi River and jazz as guides. Moving images provide an inspired backdrop for “Root.”
“I grew up on a street in Los Angeles hearing different kinds of music,” German said. “Jazz healed people and it gave people an outlet. Not only were people innovators in music, refusing to be kept down, they created things and they did what they wanted to do. They were asserting their lives and art in the midst of oppression. I love music and the power and the assertion of people making art.”
German first presented “Root” at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture last year while as a part of the August Wilson Center Fellows Program. It has also been shown on Martha’s Vineyard.
“When I presented ‘Root’ at the August Wilson Center, it was a part of a festival and there’s a lot of technical and musical production that couldn’t be done then. The second time, I added another poem to it and made it a more intimate experience for the audience,” German said.
She is happy to be restaging the show in Pittsburgh at the Kelly Strayhorn.
“I’ll be having a pre-show mixer before the show and I invite audience participation and interaction one hour prior to ‘Root,’” she said.
German encourages participants to receive a blessing and/or collaborate with her to write an original poem in the theater during the mixers. These interactions encourage what she views as the “root”—the intersection of artist, community and theater.
“Vanessa is the perfect artist to represent what the Kelly Strayhorn Theater is about,” explained Janera Solomon, the theater’s executive director. “She is exceptionally talented in so many areas. She is a thorough and thoughtful artist who draws inspiration from other artists, culture, and history. Since so many things inspire her, her visual art and performances are beautifully complex.”
German’s restaging of “Root” is the start of her year-long residency at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. She will premiere a new piece on the Kelly Strayhorn Theater stage next year.
In addition to her residency at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, German teaches spoken word and poetry workshops. She is also a play artist at Lincoln Primary School in Homewood. She has performed throughout the world, most recently completing spoken word commissions for Texas Southern University and the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.
(“Root” will be performed at 8 p.m. Tickets for the show are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. To purchase tickets visit www.kelly-strayhorn.org or call 1-800-838-3006.)