Fisk Jubilee Singers Celebrated on Stage It's been more than a century since the Fisk University Jubilee singers started performing Negro spirituals and slave songs. Today, the Fisk singers are still spreading the songs of enslaved Africans nationwide. And they're celebrated in a new show called Sing Jubilee! The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Fisk Jubilee Singers Celebrated on Stage

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TONY COX, host:

I am Tony Cox and this is News & Notes.

(Soundbite of Fisk Jubilee Singers)

COX: It's been more than a century since the Fisk University Jubilee singer started performing negro spiritual and slave songs. The songs were an expression of deeply-rooted religious beliefs and faith. Today, the Fisk singers are still spreading the songs of enslaved Africans nationwide, and they are celebrated in a new show called "Sing Jubilee! The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers." With us today is Rick Sperling, founder and CEO of the Mosaic Youth Theater in Detroit, which is staging the play and also with us is Sing Jubilee! Playwright Oyamo. Gentlemen, welcome.

Mr. RICK SPERLING (Founder and CEO of Mosaic Youth Theater): Thank you.

Mr. OYAMO (Sing Jubilee! Playwright): Thank you.

COX: Rick, let us start with you. You founded the Mosaic Theater ensemble fifteen years ago, why did you do that?

Mr. SPERLING: Well, I really saw a tremendous need for a program like this. I was an artist and resident in the Detroit public schools and more than 90 percent of the schools had no drama programs. Very few had music programs and this is a community that brought us Motown. And brought us some of the greatest actors and musicians and after my experience in the schools and seeing how hungry these young people were for this I decided we needed our own company, our own youth theater company. What I didn't expect was that young people would come from all over metropolitan Detroit and from 50 different schools. And the productions that we did were such a high level that they were on a professional level. And they've led us to tour our productions to Europe, to Asia, to Africa, all across the United States and Canada. So what started off as trying to fill a need has really become a great opportunity to be a world-class youth art organization. It's has been a very exciting 15 years.

COX: Let's us talk to the playwright, Oyamo. The Fisk Jubilee Singers story is a fantastic one going way back and how they were - they came together to save Fisk University from being closed down in Nashville, Tennessee. What inspired you to write this?

Mr. OYAMO: Well you know, actually I had at one point been working on a project about the Fisk Jubilee Singers but it was project that ultimately didn't go anywhere. So - but I had done some research, and I was absolutely fascinated and inspired by their story. It's quite fantastic how a group of young people came together at Fisk University under the direction a man named George White. Actually at that time it was called Fisk Free-Colored School and it was formed originally by the American Missionary Association which founded this school along with about 19 others.

At that time, it was, say in 1871, the school was found in 1876 but in 1871 this group decided that they are going to go out and try to raised money for Fisk, under George White's direction and at his urging and because essentially it was his idea. And the times were quite careless in those days to be traveling around with a white man, George White, 10 young singers. And at that point in Nashville, Tennessee and in the south in general, these thousands of northern white school teachers who came down to teach the free people, were risking their lives.

COX: Well, let me stop you there because a story is fantastic, and we don't have a time to do all of it as we would like, but I want to play a little bit of the piece and I want to ask you, Rick, after we hear a little bit of the show, to talk about the role that I understand that you played not only in staging it but actually performing in it. Here is the piece.

(Soundbite of Fisk Jubilee Singers music)

FISK JUBILEE SINGERS: (Singing) Oh Mary, Oh Martha. Oh Mary, ring them bells. Oh Mary, Oh Martha. Oh Mary ring them bells (unintelligible) angels ringing them bells.

COX: So Rick, you had part in it. I don't know if it was a singing part or speaking part or both. What was it exactly?

Mr. SPERLING: Thankfully for the audience it was not a singing part. I am portraying the role of George White, the abolitionist who, as Oyamo said, went south to work with the freed people and was inspired by these young singers to tour the country, to try to stay Fisk. It's very interesting because there are a lot of parallels between the evolution of Fisk Jubilee Singers and the evolution of Mosaic. These are young African-American performers who are trying to say to the world that they can do as great art as anyone. That was quite a statement to make in 1871.

But it's amazing that that statement is still something that we have to work hard in 2008, for these young African-American performers to go out there, and we've performed at the White House and the Kennedy Center. And it takes awhile for people to realize that these young people can do incredibly sophisticated works of theater, just like the Fisk Jubilee Singers did incredibly sophisticated pieces of music. And just to have a play written by Oyamo, whose plays have been produced all around the world, written just for Mosaic, I think, speaks to that level. But it was our 15th anniversary and we thought it would it was something special for me to act on stage with our young people.

COX: Well, happy anniversary and congratulations to the both of you, Oyamo, Rick.

Mr. SPERLING: Thank you.

COX: We appreciate your coming on. Oyamo wrote the play, "Sing Jubilee! The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers." Rick Sperling is founder and the CEO of the Mosaic Youth Theater in Detroit, which is presenting the play.

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