Ceiling/Sky: Shakin’ Up the Northridge Quake
by Natalie Mislang Mann
As an admirer of composer John Adams and poet/activist June Jordon (1936-2002), I knew that Long Beach Opera’s Los Angeles premiere of I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky at the Ford Amphitheatre on August 23, 2014 would be political. But, how political could an opera/musical performance about the Northridge Earthquake be? As a Northridge resident at the time of the earthquake (and still), I remember my reality being shaken to what seemed like the rudiments of existence: No gas, no electricity, and no tap water for days. It was being in a quasi-fundamental way.
Ceiling/Sky undulates beyond those prolonged eight catastrophic seconds of the Northridge natural disaster and cracks open an era of human made debacles. Only two years prior to the earthquake, the Los Angeles rebellion took place in response to the Rodney King beating at the hands of Los Angeles policemen. Later, on November 8, 1994, California voters would approve Proposition 187 to ban social services to undocumented immigrants. The Northridge quake was different than these two events by effecting and affecting everyone inhabiting its radius in some way or another, regardless of ethnic background or class. However, Ceiling/Sky underpins the sentiments behind these three historical events, and weaves them into a tapestry that uncovers the racial, political and class landscape of Los Angeles in the early to mid 1990s. It was, and still stands, as a city rumbling from racial and class disparity.
The African American performers comprised of Cedric Berry as Dewain, a reformed gang member; Bernard Holcomb as a lothario who happens to be a Baptist minister; and, Lindsay Patterson as Leila, a graduate student and sex educator/family planning counselor. Zeffin Quinn Hollis portrayed Mike, a white police officer and community activist struggling with his sexual identity. Zapporah Peedle performed as Tiffany, a sensationalist reporter on a program loosely based on the concept of the television show COPS. Andrew Nguyen, as Rick, is a Vietnamese-American Legal Aid defense attorney. Holly Sedillos sang as Consuelo, the undocumented mother from El Salvador who lost loved ones at the hands of a death squad. In a moving piece, Consuelo asks what the difference is between living in America and El Salvador, “El Salvador and Los Angeles, what is the difference to me?” She realizes that in both places she “must not open [her] mouth.” The lives of all these characters cross through the entirety of the performance as ordinary events lead up to the earthquake. The most pivotal part of the performance is when Mike arrests Dewain for stealing two bottles of beer. Tiffany catches the detention on camera. Representing Dewain, Rick offers to pay five dollars so that his client won’t have to face the Three-Strikes Law and go to jail for forty-five years. The reason he took the beer becomes clear during Rick’s performance – illuminating how the identities of the characters are misconstrued when seen as the other.
John Adams utilizes his minimalist operatic style as the foundation to build an amalgamated genre that fuses together pop, jazz, gospel, blues and funk. Utilizing chairs as the main stage prop/decoration, the artistic staff under the direction of Andreas Mitisek (conductor/stage director) emphasized the importance of Jordan’s libretto and the interaction amongst the cast. Having seen the orchestra tech rehearsal on August 19, 2014, I was expecting to see something slightly different – in terms of aesthetics and staging – the day of the performance. But, I didn’t. What I did see the evening of the rehearsal was a cast who yearned to bring out the best in each other. From my perspective, it seemed that what they wanted most was to create a precise experience within the confines of staged abstraction. And, in order to create visual meaning out of near nothing, the interaction between the cast had to be tightly woven. They accomplished that by embracing the strengths and vulnerabilities of each character to create a malleability that comes from experiencing life. The earthquake represented disruption at the center of a crossroads to fuel political, social and romantic awakening. Dewain sings one of the most poignant lines: I am the only way I will be free.
I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky was presented by The Los Angeles Arts Commission as part of the Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series at Ford Theatres. The title of the piece is a quote from an interview that ran in the Los Angeles Times from someone who experienced the Northridge Earthquake on January 17, 1994.
Ford Theatres is located at 2580 Cahuenga Boulevard East. Hollywood 90068
The next Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series performance will be Ezralow Dance:
For more information about the Long Beach Opera’s 2014/2015 season of rarely performed operas: