If a trusted friend came to you enthusiastically and said, quite seriously, “Let’s go hear a performance of early Shaker spirituals,” you’d probably just stare back a him with a concerned expression and say, “Really?” However, if that same well intended mate suggested a night of listening to a live Gospel choir you’d probably get into the funk and say, “Sure, when?” Because the minute you hear the word Gospel you instantly think of the origins of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston, but no Grammy winners popped up with the Shaker recommendation. To save face and to manipulate your decision your friend shamelessly starts dropping names like the celebrated Wooster Group known for its artsy productions, and founding members such as, the late Spaulding Gray and actor Willem Dafoe among others. “Early Shaker Spirituals” after all is their production and the first time they are presenting it in San Francisco. The trusted friend then casually mentions that Oscar winner and new Bay Area resident Frances McDormand is a part of the four women ensemble. “Oh, and Suzzy Roche of the female vocal group the “Roches” and “Four Bitchin Babes” is also singing.”
Before you know it you’re sitting in front of a very stark, brightly lit stage with a few rigid but colorful thrift store chairs, a shadeless standing lamp, and a four by eight panel with a semi-shaded window cut into one side of it. Frances McDormand and, Suzzy Roche enter along with one of the Wooster Groups founders, Elizabeth LeCompte, and Cynthia Headstrom wearing dower long sleeve mid calf dresses and manly shoes. McDormand is the only one dressed with a traditional prim white cap covering her hair and all sit with their hands folded in their laps, expressionless, except for Headstorm who stands next to the naked standing lamp as if it was an America Gothic pitchfork.
As you sit there feeling a bit overdressed and conspicuously vain–you realize how little you know about the Shakers and how they tend to blur among the little you know about Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish. But, just then the female ensemble starts singing, track by track, of the first side of a 1976 record album called, “Shaker” (Rounder Records.) These four makeup-less brides of Jesus are wired for audio transmission and headsets controlled by DJ and sound designer, Max Bernstein, and sing along, word for word, with the album that is mostly inaudible to the audience. Much to your surprise, these frail devotional a cappella songs start to distill your busy mind into the essence of that eternal longing for the perfect unadulterated state, where pure innocence abides and simplicity rules, a valley where the fruits of your hard labor, sacrifices, and celibacy actually pays off. ‘’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free, ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
Twenty delicate songs without harmonies are sung before McDormand and Roche deliver two heart-felt interviews, two timely stories that they mimic with every guttural clearing of the throat and pause of the original singer. When the minimal set is struck four young men joins the women for some traditional Shaker foot stomping line dances and circles. Why the men are all younger than the women, looking more like hip San Franciscan Google employees then Shaker men–with only one sporting the traditional beard–is a bit of a mystery. Why also, the songs and interviews are not memorized and sung without relying on technology is also a bit of a curiosity. Did this contrast between high tech and low tech really add to the piece? You think not… but then you wonder if your expectations are now too high and you’ve begun waiting to find yourself “in the place just right” where everything is pure and white as snow. One thing is certain, you’ve been transported into a world you would have never gone to without your friend’s persistence, and taking him to a late night dinner just might be the right and simple gift for showing your gratitude.