Review: Chicago Opera Theater’s Quamino Map Pulls Back the Curtain on Black Lives Matter in the Georgia Era

Map of Quamino is the 22nd opera by Belizean-born composer Errollyn Wallen, who trained at the University of London and Cambridge. The libretto is by playwright Deborah Brevoort and the result is a richly layered look at a different London that has been mostly unspoken. Slavery was outlawed by George III in 1807, but there were a number of free people of African descent in London who were taken from colonial conquests in Africa and the islands called the West Indies, including the Bahamas. There was also a Black Nobility which was an entity unto itself and this is the world that Black Billy/Juba Freeman (Curtis Bannister) enters.

I may be one of the few people who didn’t dive into the Regency Era series Bridgerton by Chicago writer Shonda Rhimes. Map of Quamino tells the story of black life before Shondaland in Georgian England, directed by Kimille Howard. The British Army requested the help of slaves in America during the Revolutionary War. Black Billy is taken under the wing of cartographer Quamino Dolly (Damen Geter) who encourages him to take a new name after being baptized, and Black Billy becomes Juba Freeman. Curtis Bannister is a joy to hear and see. Its soft and powerful tenor is the centerpiece of this story of love, enslavement by other names and classism. Geter’s growling baritone is a lovely counterpoint to Bannister’s tenor and a sonic motif that reinforces the relationship of mentor and apprentice between Quamino and Juba.

Joelle Lamarre, Flora Hawk and Kimberly E. Jones: Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Juba is a violinist who played for the slave master in Carolina, but he sold his precious violin to board the last ship for London. He sees the beautiful and charitable Amelia Alumond (Flora Hawk) and is stunned by her beauty and beautiful clothes. Hawk has a silky soprano that rises without a hint of sharpness. Their love is met with formidable resistance from Amelia’s mother Grace (Kimberly E. Jones) and older sister Elizabeth (Joelle Lamarre). Jones and Lamarre are as much comic relief as nobility in Map of Quamino. Jones and Lamarre may be familiar to those who have seen Anthony Davis Amistad or Terence Blanchard’s opera Fire locked in my bones at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Elizabeth is quite funny as the fiancee of Captain Archibald Campbell (Keanon Kyles). Elizabeth wants her marriage to be perfect and she is a bridezilla to Amelia. When Amelia is caught kissing the impoverished Juba, her mother and sister descend on her and berate her for being near such a low-born man. Elizabeth pushes her towards several suitors for the Captain and Grace’s marriage.

I found the story interesting but a little jerky. Quamino’s character serves more as a metaphor than a central part of the story. He doesn’t have a lot of history and he is revealed to be an indentured servant. The details of how he and Juba know each other are mostly talked about, aside from the fact that they knew each other in North Carolina. I wanted to know more about the berserk character Dele Piebald (Tyrone Chambers II). Chambers is a Greek chorus of one, warning Juba to put pepper on his feet to keep the bloodhounds at bay. Why is Dele crooked and lame? It has a lush tenor that I wanted to hear more of.

Flora Hawk, Damien Geter and Curtis Bannister: Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Wallen’s music has what is called a large vocabulary. There are items from several categories, including Baroque, Classical, Jazz, and American Broadway. The flesh peddlers and lowlifes characters have a heartbreaking number led by Mistress Paddington (Leah Dexter) and Tawny Betty (Veena Akama-Makia). Dexter has a knack for comedy and a beautiful voice as she weaves around the stage offering a taste of her birch paddle stick. Tawny Betty sells cookies and other naughty things for pence and shillings. Juba knows Mistress Paddington as Patsy from the plantation. I wanted to know more about their history.

Map of Quamino would benefit from a more complete scenario and a longer lifespan. Rather, it is an operetta with witty comedy and a mixture of genres. The opening scene could be shortened a bit and the choreography should have been left out entirely. The chorus sings beautifully but felt stiff and uncoordinated in this long opening song. Director Kimille Howard comes to this production with experience as an assistant director at the Met in New York. Unlike the opening scene, the rest of his staging is fluid and the Flesh Peddler/Lowlife number is done perfectly. The orchestra is conducted by Jeri Lynne Johnson, a decorated Music Maestra and the first black female conductor I have seen. The orchestra played beautifully but could have played more pianissimo when baritone Geter sang. Its bass notes got lost in the music. There are some things to sweeten up but overall it’s great music and acting worth your time.

Map of Quamino only lasts three performances until May 1, with the last performance at 3 p.m. today. Tickets are $20 to $150. Duration is 90 minutes without intermission at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave. For more information on the Chicago Opera Theater, please visit chicagooperatheater.org/. This organization brings new music and artists from the human diaspora. Remember Covid protocols at all theater performances – vaccinate, mask up and support the arts in Chicago.

For more information on this production and others, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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