PORTLAND — Call it a collage, a spoken-word piece, a one-man show, or a multi-media chamber collaboration. My Words Are My Sword fits all of those descriptions. Written and performed by spoken-word artist, actor and self-proclaimed “inspirationalist” Phil Darius (duh-REE-us) Wallace, the Portland world premiere delivered a trenchant message about America’s Black history and appalling legacy of racism.
Wallace was onstage — rather, among the pews of a cathedral-ceilinged Catholic church — for the entire 95-minute performance. But it wasn’t all Wallace, despite his impassioned performance. It included 20 members of the Portland Chamber Orchestra led by Yaacov Bergman, with music by composer-pianist Jasnam Daya Singh.
The work was performed April 9 at St. Andrew Catholic Church, in the heart of a rapidly gentrifying, historically Black Portland neighborhood, and April 10 at Portland’s St. Michael’s Lutheran Church after being postponed from a February date, when Covid was sweeping through the city.
A two-year joint effort of Wallace, Daya Singh, and Bergman, the piece is also a collaboration between music and spoken words. In this case, the words drove the music; Daya Singh did not write a note until hearing, reading, and absorbing Wallace’s text. The community joined in, too. The Oregon Commission on Black Affairs partnered with the Portland Chamber Orchestra to provide tickets for 60 Black concertgoers.
Propelling and underlining Wallace’s piece, which the actor titled, was the power of words and their weaponry to change the world. “Words open up possibility to get to the truth and bottom of it,” he said in a phone interview from his Memphis, Tenn., home earlier in the spring. “Words are powerful. Words are the end result of power that’s in us. We have the ability as humans to use words to educate and inspire lives. We’ve been trained to hate teach other, based on our skin, on 1 percent of what we are.”
Words brought Wallace, 53, back to life 25 years ago when his mother died of breast cancer. He had a breakdown and ended up homeless in Brooklyn, N.Y. He eventually started reading voraciously, sneaking into bookstores and soaking up wisdom from books. He recovered and was able in a few years to pursue his acting dream.
The Overture and Postlude allowed the orchestra and the mellifluous multi-genre music to shine. If you listened carefully, you could hear Daya Singh’s rippling piano playing. The rest of the program, though underscored by Daya Singh’s music, was focused on Wallace’s strong, physical delivery punctuated by his graceful and vigorous hand movements. He referenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons and speeches, re-enacted 19th-century anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass’ childhood, and traced Malcolm X’s imprisonment, Islam conversion, and assassination. He sang — Wallace’s lustrous voice ranges from bass-baritone to an occasional falsetto note — and recited poetry, mostly his own.
Other poems included Langston Hughes’ “Harlem.” Richard Wright’s impassioned and angry “Between the World and Me” was in the mix. The poem is about a Black man discovering where a lynching occurred. He becomes paralyzed by fear that blocks him from participating in the world. Like Hughes, Wright was a Harlem Renaissance writer and activist.
Balancing the understated music, which could easily be a movie score, with the weight of the words presented the biggest challenge of the performance. The chamber orchestra included trombone, drums, clarinet, trumpet, English horn, oboe, flute, piccolo, vibraphone, a handful of strings, and Daya Singh on piano. In St. Andrew’s acoustics, the orchestra had to be wary not to overwhelm Wallace’s words. At times, the words were hard to understand, but the passion and energy translated easily.
Wallace delivered his lines from the center of the church floor on the same level as the audience rather than from on high, where the orchestra held forth and the crucifix hung. Wallace was usually moving forward and backward in the floor space, so he had to switch his delivery from side to side in order to reach the entire audience. His enunciation was precise, his delivery sparkled, and he was miked, but like any performance without an elevated stage or perfect acoustics, you couldn’t hear everything clearly.
Bergman met Wallace in 2019 in Walla Walla, Wash., where Wallace was acting at the Gesa Power House Theatre. An actor who often performs historically researched one-man shows, most notably on activist and reformer Frederick Douglass, Wallace was creating a project based on Black experience through story, monologue, poetry and songs.
In a March email interview, Bergman said My Words Are My Sword “addressed current issues with the buried history of Black struggle, bravery and excellence,” and in ways, “redefined Blackness.”
The finished piece linked the Civil Rights movement with the lynching of young teen Emmett Till in the mid-1950s and with the Black Lives Matter movement sparked by the fatal choking of George Floyd. The first draft, was “wild,” with strong R-rated language, Wallace said during a March interview. The final draft was toned down for a family audience.
Bergman was determined to step up as the Black Lives Matter initiative spread. As he said in an earlier interview with Portland’s All Classical radio station music commentator Robert McBride, “As an artist in a community, you cannot be blind. You cannot stand there and do nothing.”
Bergman has directed the Portland Chamber Orchestra for 19 years. Though Bergman has conducted his share of traditional classical music, he prefers these days to produce multi-arts pieces by bringing together diverse artistic expressions, genres, voices, and cultures. So My Words Are My Sword was not a big stretch for him to pull together.
Brazilian-born Daya Singh, 60, who calls himself a “melting pot of cultures,” was the obvious choice as composer, Bergman said. In 2017, Portland Chamber Orchestra had given the Northwest premiere of his 2006 Jazz Concertino for Piano and String Orchestra, in which he appeared as a soloist, and Bergman recognized his dual brilliance as pianist and composer “with a distinct voice and musical style that blends Latin jazz and classical styles.”
Daya Singh mmigrated to the United States in 1987 and resides in Vancouver, Wash., a few miles over the Washington-Oregon border from Portland. “My Brazilian roots always end up meshing with American styles,” he said. “Remember, at this point I have lived in the U.S. longer than I lived in Brazil.”
Like Bergman, he is a fan of blending different genres and styles, sometimes in the same piece of music. Few examples of typically Brazilian genres of samba or baiāo surface in My Words, but the African element, present in Brazilian music, appears regularly. The music features strains of modern and impressionist classical music. Several parts are informed by jazz and hip-hop. Some passages are influenced by Daya Singh’s favorite composers, who range from Ravel, Bartók, and Prokofiev to Faurė, Vaughan Williams, and Villa-Lobos.
Daya Singh composed My Words on the piano and computer, and the music had to work as a sensitive underscoring of the text without sacrificing its bold, stylistically diverse, rhythmically rich, and very American style.
That was achieved in the well-received April 9 and 10 performances attended by too few people, about 145 people at each concert. As of now, no plans exist to take it elsewhere.
The piece started with “the why” of racism: “Why has racism found so much purpose in our lives?” Wallace asked, hands raised. He ended with how we can stem its toxic tide. “We all have the power to soar. Abundance is all around us…There’s power in us that’s greater than the world’s systems in power.”
Portland Chamber Orchestra is a on a mission to address social and racial issues with its music. Next up is the world premiere of Celilo Falls: We Were There. It will have three Oregon performances: June 4 at the newly opened Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton, Or.; June 5 at Portland’s St. Michael’s Lutheran Church; and June 11 at the Granada Theatre in The Dalles, Or. About the indigenous community’s loss of the falls for fishing, celebrations, and other tribal endeavors due to the damming of the Columbia River, the piece combines the work of Oregonians: cellist Nancy Ives’ music, Joe Cantrell’s photos, and Ed Edmo’s words.