Penn Live Arts Blog

Looking Back at Vessels

Posted March 4, 2021

African Roots Music Theatre World Music World Premieres

Photos by Kielinski Photography
On March 7, 2019 – one year before the coronavirus pandemic hit – we presented the world premiere of Vessels. An Annenberg Center co-commission, this poignant work centered on the question, “What does freedom sound like in a space of confinement?” Set on an abstraction of a slave ship with neither spoken words nor instrumental music, Vessels explored the journey of African women across the Middle Passage through sound and movement.

Inspiration struck Vessels co-creator Rebecca Mwase when she heard a talk about how millions of enslaved people arrived on these shores with their sanity intact. She immediately thought that song and dance must have played a crucial role. Mwase partnered with Ron Ragin, a singer and composer who focuses on interdisciplinary performance art and music of the African Diaspora, and the two embarked on a four-year journey studying traditional song and dance to create this important work.

We were honored to present this moving world premiere production. Audiences left the performance with visceral reactions to the immersive, ritual-esc experience which began in the lobby before even entering the theatre. Feelings of hopelessness and gut-wrenching grief leaned into insight and healing, as these eight amazing women, representing so many of our country’s ancestors, found life-sustaining solace in music and movement.

Explore Vessels through the photos taken from opening night. And, to hear more about this work and the “sounds of freedom,” check out Peter Crimmins’ story for WHYY.