Donald Lawrence entrusts ‘Goshen’ to his Chicago dance partner
At Millennium Park, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater presents a portion of its new Exodus-themed piece, based on an album by the Grammy-nominated gospel singer.
Deeply Rooted Dance Theater likes to tell stories, and what story is bigger or better known than the Exodus, the biblical saga of the escape of the Israelites from their Egyptian captors, complete with the parting of the Red Sea?
A contemporary reinterpretation of that ancient tale is at the heart of “Goshen,” an in-development dance-theater work created by Donald Lawrence, a Grammy Award-winning producer, songwriter and gospel artist based in Chicago.
‘A Deeply Rooted Evening for Chicago’s Healing: GOSHEN (preview)’
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25
Where: Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph
Deeply Rooted and 17 onstage singers will present a free preview — a 45-minute version of what is ultimately expected to be a 90-minute work — on Aug. 25 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
The presentation is titled “A Deeply Rooted Evening for Chicago’s Healing: GOSHEN (preview),” a nod to the show’s timing a few months after the coronavirus shutdown as arts organizations begin returning to live performances.
“It’s about persevering and making it through difficult times and healing, so we wanted to do it as a gift to Chicago,” Kevin Iega Jeff said of “Goshen.” He is Deeply Rooted’s co-founder and creative/executive director and director of this project.
Lawrence conceived “Goshen” around 2016 as a recording for his gospel choir, the Tri-City Singers (from three cities in the Carolinas), as a way to mark its 25th anniversary, but he thought of the project from the start as the nucleus for a dance-theater piece.
The album, which was released in February 2019, received a Grammy nomination in the gospel category, and its hit single, “Deliver Me. This Is My Exodus”, was named Billboard’s most played gospel song of that year.
Goshen is named in the Bible as the place in Egypt where Joseph, a cast-out Israelite who rose to become second only to the pharaoh, invited his fellow countrymen to live following a severe famine. Much later, the Israelite descendants were enslaved, ultimately leading to the Exodus.
“Goshen was considered God’s protected place,” Lawrence said, “but if you want to use more spiritual-psychological wisdom, it’s like this place of peace and safety no matter what is happening around you, and it’s all inward.”
While gospel is the base of Lawrence’s musical language, other styles appear as well. He studied musical theater at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music and has coached En Vogue, a superstar R&B and pop vocal group.
“When you hear my music,” he said, “it shows you the places I’ve lived musically, whether it’s urban music and R&B, whether it’s gospel, whether it’s musical theater or jazz or swing. I just kind of throw it all into a bowl and see what art happens.”
After the album’s debut, Lawrence began working on transforming “Goshen” into a dance-theater work and reached out to Deeply Rooted, a company that melds multiple dance styles, including ballet, modern (Lester Horton and Martha Graham) and African-based techniques.
The project made sense for the African American company, said Nicole Clarke-Springer, who is in her second season as artistic director, in part because of the central place of gospel music in the Black tradition. “It’s really integral to who we are and how we communicate and have communicated throughout history,” she said.
In preparation for a workshop production of “Goshen” in December 2019 (the upcoming performance marking Deeply Rooted’s 25th anniversary is a repeat of that presentation with a few tweaks), five choreographers teamed to create the dance, each taking different sections. In addition to Jeff and Clarke-Singer, they were Gary Abbott, Deeply Rooted’s co-founder and associate director; Joshua L. Ishmon, rehearsal director and longtime dancer, and guest choreographer Tshediso Kabulu from South Africa.
“We have a wide variety of styles that are incorporated in this that flow and mesh,” said Clarke-Springer. “We all have a common thread as choreographers — an understanding of the music, the story and what needs to have happen inside each movement.”
Certainly dance for dance’s sake can be effective, Ishmon said, but allowing audiences to invest in a storyline makes for a more profound experience. “I think we do it well,” he said. “Even in an abstract work like ‘Goshen,’ the journey you go through visually and sonically, it still resonates with people strongly.”
Deeply Rooted’s 10 company dancers and two apprentices will join 12 choral singers from The NuXperience, who will be integrated into the movement. Also appearing will be gospel singer Le’Andria Johnson and lead singers from the Tri-City Singers.
The full-length version of “Goshen” was supposed to be presented in May 2020 under the auspices of Broadway in Chicago, but it was canceled because of the coronavirus shutdown. With the help of this second preview performance, Lawrence and his collaborators hope to get the project back on track.
“It’s a beautiful journey of a show to dance in, to watch, to hear,” Ishmon said. “It appeals to all your senses.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.