“I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
I Sing the Rising Sea, the world premiere musical that will open Virginia Stage Company’s 38th season, is truly an epic that spans continents and decades. Playwright Eric Schorr covers many miles with his narrative, weaving together fictional characters and people straight out of our history books. By beautifully connecting the recognizable characters of his story with the fictional legacy of Granby Collins, Sr., Schorr highlights the power and inevitability of the interconnectedness of life.
“For me, the musical is about the tension between connection and control. In order for our planet to survive, we must realize all of us are interconnected and must work together — and sacrifice together — to achieve certain goals,” said Schorr.
Hampton Roads and the story of Granby Collins, an African-American man growing up in the 1930s, serve as the story’s epicenter. The fluid narrative introduces audiences to Langston Hughes, who gives Collins a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This book of poems makes its way into the hands of his great grandson Granby Jr., a scientist studying extremophiles (tardigrades and nematodes to be exact) in connection to climate change in Antarctica in the not too distant future. As Granby Jr. pieces together his great grandfather’s legacy, we meet famous faces, such as Hughes, Joseph McCarthy, and Japan’s last Emperor Hirohito. The famous faces of I Sing the Rising Sea underline the truth behind the sentiment that we are indeed all in this together. But who were Langston Hughes and Hirohito?
“[Poetry] is the human soul, entire, squeezed like a lemon or lime, drop by drop into atomic words.”
— Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes is known primarily as a literary pillar of the Harlem Renaissance who writes in blank verse and cites Walt Whitman as a primary influence. He writes in a deceptively simple style that makes the African-American experience between the 1920s and 1960s tangible and accessible for everyone. Hoyt W. Fuller believed that, "the key to Langston Hughes . . . was the poet's deceptive and profound simplicity. Profound because it was both willed and ineffable, because some intuitive sense even at the beginning of his adulthood taught him that humanity was of the essence and that it existed undiminished in all shapes, sizes, colors and conditions. Violations of that humanity offended his unshakable conviction that mankind is possessed of the divinity of God." The violations of humanity that surrounded Hughes in the form of Jim Crow laws, race riots, and a segregated military lead his work to be viewed as revolutionary. So much so that during the Red Scare, he was brought before Joseph McCarthy and The House Un-American Activities Committee for questioning particularly for his early work like, One More "S" in the U.S.A.
African-American poet, Langston Hughes recites his poem, "The Weary Blues" (1925) to jazz accompaniment with the Doug Parker Band on the CBUT (CBC Vancouver) program "The 7 O'Clock Show" in 1958. Host, Bob Quintrell introduces the performance.
Our protagonist, Granby Sr., meets Hughes in a Harlem diner in the 1940s. Later as the two watch ships sailing the Hudson, Hughes explains, “Poets and scientists. Blacks and Whites. We all look at the same sky.” He then recites Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and casually tells Granby that he reads Whitman every night before bed “to remember the power within myself.” The power that bubbles in the poetry of Hughes stands in defiant opposition to the racial inequity that seemed only natural to some. As America joins the fighting of World War II, African-American soldiers like Granby Sr., who later tells Hughes that he ”just signed up,” were trained separately from white soldiers.
African-American Troops Training:
Despite the bravery of African Americans in all of America’s previous wars and despite the argument made by the NAACP and others that “a Jim Crow army cannot fight for a free world,” the armed forces of the United States remained strictly segregated.
Timeline of African American involvement in the military in the 40s
1942: Black men (1942) and black women (1944) were admitted to the U.S. Navy, and black males to the Marines (1942).
1944: Black anti-aircraft battalions were a critical role in the D-Day invasion of France.
1944: Blacks were fighting in integrated units during the Battle of the Bulge (1944) under General George Patton.
While America fought for freedom and the American way, its own citizens were fighting a battle on all fronts in hopes of achieving a “double victory,” one against the Axis powers abroad and one against Jim Crow at home.
While the currents of culture began to sway, Hughes pushed relentlessly against the ideology of Separate but Equal. He wrote in response to the segregated blood donor policy of the Red Cross and the military, in response to the Harlem Race Riots of 1943, and in celebration of black culture. Although Hughes had a knack for telling like it is, he also managed to keep a sense of hope alive. Take his poem Dreams for example:
"Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow."
Although the truth of a world without dreams or hope is portrayed as dark and lifeless, looking carefully at his chosen metaphors shows the potential for change and hope. Life is compared to a broken-winged bird and a field frozen with snow. The bird has potential to heal and the field to thaw. The prevailing sense of hope and strength of Hughes is what binds him to Granby Sr. It is also a force that connects us all to each other and binds us all with “atomic words,” reminding us that something that appears so insignificant, such as a book of poems or a few degrees rise in temperature, has the power to connect a man to his past or to sink a city.
Gyokusai (Japanese): A jewel breaking or shattering like a jewel
Hirohito. The name sends ghosts of Imperial Japan swirling in my mind. Hirohito was the last Emperor of Japan. But he was more than that. Leading up to World War II, he was viewed by the Japanese as divine. In honor of Hirohito and the rapid nationalism he inspired, the Japanese were willing to fight to the last man, woman, and child. Surrender was strictly forbidden within the Japanese military; instead soldiers committed suicide in a dignified manner. In 1943, a year after the Japanese defeat at Midway, the term Gyokusai, “to die gallantly as a jewel shatters,” was first used by the government in official papers. Soldiers who were too wounded to fight were encouraged to kill themselves to avoid capture and defeat. The belief in the natural superiority of Japan and the divinity of its Emperor was so absolute that the idea of Gyokusai transcended the military ranks and entered the general public.
Hirohito was more than a head of state; he was a god and the center of every facet of Japanese life until August 15, 1945. On that day Hirohito delivered is first and only public radio address, informing Japan and the world of the complete and total surrender of Japan. The terms of their surrender included that Hirohito would renounce his statuses as Emperor and as divine. As Hirohito addressed his nation he noted that the surrender was needed.
"To strive for the common prosperity and happiness of all nations as well as for the security and well-being of our subjects is the solemn obligation which has been handed down by our Imperial Ancestors and which lies close to our hearts" he explained. "The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization."
When we meet Hirohito in I Sing the Rising Sea, he is collecting crabs in Sagami Bay after stepping down from his place of divinity. Granby Sr. talks with Hiro about the biodiversity of the bay as it compares to the Chesapeake. The unlikely pair discuss marine biology and ecosystems. A passerby would have no idea about the power that Hiro once possessed or the social status that Granby Sr. holds at home. They discuss the insatiable nature of curiosity and the interdependent nature of the planet. These two men in a happenstance and chance encounter demonstrate the undeniable impact of a life as it bounces against another.
"The Past — the dark unfathomed retrospect! The teeming gulf — the sleepers and the shadows! The past! the infinite greatness of the past! For what is the present after all but a growth out of the past?"
In I Sing the Rising Sea, playwright Eric Shorr connects the past to not only the present, but also the future. The message of interconnectivity resonates in the one-on-one conversation had between historically notable men, one of whom is a man who grew up in Hampton Roads. By representing the famous faces of Langston Hughes and Emperor Hirohito, Sea connects its audiences to the larger picture. The hope represented in this subtle philosophy comes at a pivotal moment as we all confront the changing climate of our planet.
Kat Martin is a Resident Theatre Artist in Virginia Stage Company's Education & Community Engagement Department. She is also Virginia Stage's Resident Dramaturg. Don't know what Dramaturgy is? Learn more about it in Kat's Staff Spotlight!