'Slip Knot' Ties Slave's Story to Guilt of CommunityChicago Tribune
April 30, 2003 On Sept. 24, 1768, a Massachusetts slave known only as "Arthur" was sentenced to be hanged for raping a white woman who, in fact, had consensual relations with him.
Shortly before Arthur's execution, at age 21, the young man recounted his brief but eventful life in an extraordinary document, "The Life, and Dying Speech of Arthur, A Negro Man."
That eloquent statement ― in which Arthur recalled his adventures, triumphs and sorrows ― languished for more than two centuries in various archives, until a Northwestern University history professor began writing historical commentary about it, in the mid-1990s.
Had professor T. H. Breen never taken up the case of Arthur, the slave's bittersweet story would have amounted to little more than a historical footnote.
But over the weekend, it emerged as a bona fide opera, albeit one that the producers hastened to call a "work in progress," according to the program dispensed Saturday night at Levere Memorial Temple, on Northwestern's Evanston campus.
Yet though the staging indeed was spare, the instrumental forces lean, and the settings minimal, at best, the new work proved searing in its musical expression and inexorable in its narrative progress.
Granted, "Slip Knot" may not yet be a finished product, as those who saw small portions of the piece at last year's Chicago Humanities Festival might attest.
But performed Saturday night before a capacity audience in its fullest form yet, "Slip Knot" showed all the hallmarks of a potentially important and lasting work. Doubly blessed with a sublimely expressive score by the veteran composer T. J. Anderson and a searing (if terse) libretto by the noted poet Yusef Komunyakaa, "Slip Knot" may be much closer to a finished product than its creators realize.
For although almost everyone affiliated with Saturday night's performance informed the crowd this was just one more step in a possibly long journey for "Slip Knot,"
the piece already conveys considerable dramatic sweep, historical purpose, and musical cohesiveness.
Who, after all, could be unmoved by the story of Arthur, a literate slave who repeatedly escapes from one "master" after another to live as if he were "almost free," to quote one of several poignant phrases in Komunyakaa's libretto?
Certainly the tale stirred scholar Breen, who began checking the historical plausibility of Arthur's story once he encountered it.
"My first reaction was that this whole story was phony, so it became like a detective case, trying to see if all the places where Arthur said he had been and all the people he said he had encountered were historically true," recalled Breen, after Saturday night's performance.
"But when I started trying to track as many clues as I could, it all proved out, everything seemed to fit. The routes of Arthur's travels, the people he met, even the trial he faced did factually exist.
"When you read Arthur's story," continued Breen, "you can hear the voice of a fascinating individual. He brags about the women he has had, the places he has seen, the escapes he has managed."
After historian Breen delivered a paper about Arthur at a conference in 1996, composer Anderson suggested that Arthur's tale ― and Breen's historical research ― might form the basis of an opera. The two eventually were joined by poet Komunyakaa and the eminent stage director Rhoda Levine.
For six years, on and off, the team labored to bring Arthur's story to the stage.
"It was challenging, to say the least," said Bernard Dobroski, the Northwestern School of Music dean who championed the project from its inception.
"But we found that everyone involved was deeply moved by the story of Arthur, and by his voice."
Even in its current incarnation, "Slip Knot" amounts to much more than just a retracing of one slave's journeys during an oft-shameful period in America's pre-history. Through Anderson's soaring lyric phrases, Komunyakaa's oft-devastating libretto, and Levine's cunning staging, "Slip Knot" explores the collective guilt of a community, as well as the heroism of one man trying to preserve his dignity despite the extraordinary social forces gathered against him.
Not that any of this material makes for easy listening. Anderson, a rigorous and intellectually imposing composer, has crafted lines that are long, sinuous, and profoundly expressive but never merely tuneful.
There isn't a wasted note in this score, every turn of phrase designed to articulate the intense emotional state of a character under siege.
If ever a new work of music theater deserved further performance and development, this is it, for with "Slip Knot" Anderson, Komunyakaa, Levine, and the rest have brought to life an American story that needs to be told and retold for as many listeners as possible.