Revels solstice treat: American subcultures

Next to the melting pot, one of America’s favorite self-images is that of a quilt, and this year’s “Christmas Revels” takes the metaphor and an actual Tree of Life quilt as inspiration for its annual winter solstice celebration.

In past years Revels, Inc. has whisked its regulars on memorable rides with French-Canadian voyageurs and Italian Renaissance entertainers, but “this year,” announces Artistic Director Patrick Swanson, “like many families, we are staying home for the holidays.”

For this 39th edition Swanson pieced together music, dance, drama, and rituals from four American subcultures: Appalachian, African-American, Shaker and, for the first time, Native American.

Sonorous Leon Joseph Littlebird, a “tradition-bearer” in Revels parlance with roots in both pioneer and Navajo cultures, starts off the evening with an invocation excerpted from “Black Elk Speaks.” The Coloradan flute-player and story-teller explains: “What we’re doing at Revels this year is taking many traditions and honoring them—not just the one of Native America—and bringing them together in a celebration to teach people the importance of the winter solstice, especially how it was celebrated here in America for thousands of years before anyone else got here.”

Fourth-generation Appalachian musician and clogger Suzannah Park, another tradition-bearer, also hails the multicultural mix, “We come here from so many different places with so many different musical and story backgrounds. These traditions help define us individually, but together we’ve created an amazing, uniquely American blend.”

Revels veteran Janice Allen notes this quiet season is a time “to go inside and tell all our stories.” Allen once again raises spirits with her trademark medley of traditional African-American folk and gospel music, including a soaring version of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.”  She’s joined in rhythmic shuffles with a quartet of mysterious, brightly beribboned Jonkunnu dancers, themselves living quilts, giving audiences a glimpse of a raucous Caribbean Christmas.

Glorious shape-note singing by the Roaring Gap Chorus under the musical direction of George Emlen anchors the musical portion of the pageant. Local folk celebrity David Coffin, successor to Revels founder John Langstaff, marks his three decades with the Revels, leading audiences in singalongs of peace rounds and spirituals like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and in community dancing in the lobby at intermission.

Typical of the show’s thoughtful series of juxtapositions, which takes the place of an overall plot through-line, is one just before the end of the first half. Leon Joseph Littlebird tells the Seneca Iroquois story of how “Spring Defeats Winter.” The nature-sensitive tale is followed by the singing of “Emerald Stream,” a modern shape-note hymn filled with ecological reflections, written by a man while on a canoe trip in northern Quebec.

Jeremy Barnett’s slanty shanty set and Heidi Anne Hermiller’s bonnets, aprons, and patched overalls convey the dignity and harmoniousness of folks who have a rich tradition, if not money wealth.
This great-big-quilt-of-America Christmas Revels winds up its 17-performance run at Sanders Theatre on the Harvard campus  on this coming Sunday, December 27 at 1 p.m.

Visit revels.org for a video and more print reviews.