Next to the melting pot, one of Americaâ€™s favorite self-images is that of a quilt, and this yearâ€™s â€œChristmas Revelsâ€ 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 â€œthis year,â€ announces Artistic Director Patrick Swanson, â€œlike many families, we are staying home for the holidays.â€
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 â€œtradition-bearerâ€ in Revels parlance with roots in both pioneer and Navajo cultures, starts off the evening with an invocation excerpted from â€œBlack Elk Speaks.â€ The Coloradan flute-player and story-teller explains: â€œWhat weâ€™re doing at Revels this year is taking many traditions and honoring themâ€”not just the one of Native Americaâ€”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.â€
Fourth-generation Appalachian musician and clogger Suzannah Park, another tradition-bearer, also hails the multicultural mix, â€œWe come here from so many different places with so many different musical and story backgrounds. These traditions help define us individually, but together weâ€™ve created an amazing, uniquely American blend.â€
Revels veteran Janice Allen notes this quiet season is a time â€œto go inside and tell all our stories.â€ Allen once again raises spirits with her trademark medley of traditional African-American folk and gospel music, including a soaring version of â€œChildren, Go Where I Send Thee.â€Â Sheâ€™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, marksÂ his three decades with the Revels, leading audiences in singalongs of peace rounds and spirituals like â€œGo Tell It on the Mountainâ€ and in community dancing in the lobby at intermission.
Typical of the showâ€™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 â€œSpring Defeats Winter.â€ The nature-sensitive tale is followed by the singing of â€œEmerald Stream,â€ a modern shape-note hymn filled with ecological reflections, written by a man while on a canoe trip in northern Quebec.
Jeremy Barnettâ€™s slanty shanty set and Heidi Anne Hermillerâ€™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 campusÂ on this coming Sunday, December 27 at 1 p.m.
Visit revels.org for a video and more print reviews.