Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Elizabeth Swados's latest work honors anniversary of murdered missionaries

I wrote this feature for National Catholic Reporter.

Her piano is surrounded by folders of musical works in progress. All are important to her, but one in particular stirs her soul. Acclaimed composer Elizabeth Swados, like many people around the world, was touched deeply by the rape and murder of four American church women in El Salvador on Dec. 2, 1980. Their stories of faith and commitment forever altered her consciousness and now, for the 30th anniversary of their deaths, she is composing an oratorio that will remember the tragedy while celebrating the positive changes it brought about.

Drawing upon stories from family members, from those who continue serving the poor in centers set up in the women’s names, and from the wisdom of Isaiah, Ecclesiastes and John’s gospel, Resilient Souls “is evoking something good from the darkest places,” Swados says. “It’s about strength and resilience. It’s a celebration of ancestry, of things being handed down after 30 years. It’s a family of people who have lived through it.”

Sinking into a large, overstuffed sofa in her spacious book-lined Greenwich Village loft, the petite 59-year-old writer appears almost engulfed by all the space and size around her. With her beloved dogs, a large brown poodle named Billy Bob and Clementine, a friendly multicolored young Labradoodle, lounging nearby, she takes time on a gorgeous October afternoon to talk about the women who are frequently in her thoughts. She never met Sister Maura Clarke, Sister Dorothy Kazel, Sister Ita Ford and Catholic lay woman Jean Donovan, but she developed an intimate relationship with them over the decade she spent composing Missionaries, a choral drama that told their stories --- at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1997 and then in churches and performance spaces around the country.

It was her strong Jewish sensibility to never forget that compelled her to write Missionaries and now to follow though with Resilient Souls. That call to remember is also behind the musical she is creating for next spring’s 100th anniversary commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 garment workers, most of them young women working in sweatshop conditions in a building not far from her loft. She sees similarities in the changes that came about because of each tragedy.

“It changed America, that fire. It made the unions happen (specifically the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union). In another 70 years we’ll look back at those women and how we look at missionaries and dictatorships and what it’s like to die for a cause. We’ll look back and see the four of them were a marker for change, (Archbishop Oscar) Romero along with them. It’s why I wrote Missionaries in the first place.”

What the rape and murder of the women, by government death squads, brought to light in the intense worldwide media spotlight that followed was a recognition of the corrupt governments in Central and South America and the role the United States played in supporting their dictatorial regimes. Resilient Souls will touch on that, while highlighting the missionary spirit that was fired up by the horror, as well as the organizations, schools and centers that have been named for the women and which carry on their work of caring for the poor and oppressed.

“This piece will emphasize that from the deepest darkness a new kind of light is coming as contemporary generations are bravely going into the most dangerous, impoverished countries and putting their lives on the line to give the poor food, schooling and self-esteem,” Swados said.

Unlike Missionaries with its cast of 20 needed to tell the story, Souls will have four leads and a chorus of 10 who also will fill the roles of the current speakers. Songs will alternate between examining the murders and corruption and celebrating the spirit of each woman and the echo they have left for future generations.

“They are so much a part of me,” Swados says. “They have so inhabited me. It was like visiting old friends. It was nice to be with them again. It was horrific to revisit the agony again, but they’ve been such a part of my artistic consciousness. They still get me through if I’m chickening out on something.”

Swados says Missionaries is the favorite of all of her work, and she has quite a lot to choose from. Among her achievements: two of her shows have been on Broadway, Doonesbury and Runaways, which earned her Tony nominations for best musical, best direction of a musical, best book of a musical, best original score and best choreography. No one has ever been nominated in that many categories for a single show. She has written music for movies and TV, published several novels and several nonfiction books, plus nearly a dozen for children.

Money raised from the December performances of Resilient Souls will benefit the MCIF (Maura Clarke--Ita Ford) Center in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which provides education and economic programs that enable immigrant women to find work. The center was founded by Halifax Sister of Charity Mary Burns and co-directed in its early years by Ursuline Sister Mary Dowd. It was “The Marys,” as Swados calls them, who approached Swados and asked her to write something positive for the 30th anniversary. In spite of a workload that, besides Resilient Souls and the Shirtwaist musical, also included another musical whose subject she doesn’t disclose, the setting of all of Roald Dahl’s poems to music, teaching at New York University and traveling to Abu Dhabi to create and stage an orientation musical for incoming students at NYU’s campus there, she said yes to The Marys without hesitation, and with no expectation of pay.

“I never take money from nuns,” she said.

Getting to know The Marys and other sisters over the years through Missionaries, and having been inspired by the four women, has made her want to work for the poor as well, so much so that she is hoping to go to Liberia to use theatre to help traumatized children.

“My religion is not observant,” she said. “Musically is where I feel the sense of God really strongly.”

Along with the caring for the poor, the commitment of sisters also impresses her. “Their generosity and selflessness and the twinkle, the not being so self-important, help me focus my own beliefs, to not be so self-serious,” she says. “They don’t dwell, they just get on with it. That’s a huge thing to learn.”

Schedule for Relisient Souls

Performance 1 – BROOKLYN - Wed, Dec 1 – 8 p.m.
            St. Francis College – Founders Hall
            180 Remsen St, Brooklyn Heights
Performance 2 – MANHATTAN - Fri, Dec 3 – 8 p.m.
            Church of St Joseph
            371 Sixth Ave. (West Village)
Performance 3 – QUEENS - Sun, Dec 5 – 2 p.m.
            Mary Louis Academy
            176-21 Wexford Terrace, Jamaica Estates, Queens

For tickets visit lizswados.com and click on News.

In addition, Missionaries will have its Boston premiere Dec. 2, 3, and 4. All performances are at 8 p.m. and will take place at Boston College High School on Dec. 2, at The Paulist Center in downtown Boston on Dec. 3, and at the Church of St. Ignatius in Chestnut Hill on Dec. 4. Details and ticket information can be found on the production website at www.missionariesboston.org.

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