Troy Anthony on Healing with THE REVIVAL at The Shed

New York

Troy Anthony at the piano | Photo: Ahad Subzwari

By
Juan Michael Porter II
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June 18, 2022 10:35 AM
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Features

On June 18 at 7:30 PM, The Shed is presenting composer and artistic director Troy Anthony and his choir community, The Fire Ensemble, in a sold-out public performance called The Revival: It Is Our Duty. This presentation is a Black queer led call to communal healing that brings the power of gospel music and social justice activism to audiences of all backgrounds.

Though firmly steeped in Black traditions and centered around global majority and queer bodies, Anthony has constructed The Revival so that it invites participants of all backgrounds to connect and build a better future together. After watching Anthony rehearse his 40+ choral ensemble, I started to describe the experience as “church for people who didn't even know there was a God.”

That universal call to people of all backgrounds is why The Shed has committed to presenting and supporting Anthony’s vision as part of a three year partnership. 

Putting It Together

The Revival came about after the pandemic forced Anthony to rethink his original proposal, which he’d submitted to The Shed’s Open Call program. That initial presentation revolved around the relationships between Jesus, Peter, and the disciples, and was slated for performances in an intimate space. But with smaller venues being shut down, Anthony realized expanding his concept would not work. When asked what he would like to do instead, he suggested a gospel celebration off the top of his head.

While attending a visual art gallery opening, he ran into Alex Poots, The Shed's artistic director, and told him about the idea. Poots was so dazzled that he started to introduce Anthony to a group of equally enthusiastic supporters. Based upon that conversation, The Shed's civic programs team was able to commit to incubating the choir, now known as The Fire Ensemble,  for the next three years, complete with a budget to support the participating artists for 10 week engagements whenever they came together to mount a "Revival." 

In addition to their next appearance at The Shed on December 10, the ensemble has also been commissioned by Oregon Shakespeare Festival to collaborate with adrienne marie brown to create a ritual piece based on her book, Emergent Strategy

In the Room Where It Happens

The ensemble delivered their first revival to communal acclaim last year on June 19, in celebration of Juneteenth. In anticipation of this year’s Juneteenth celebration, Theatrely attended two rehearsals with the group. 

The second rehearsal took place on the day after the Tony Awards. And though you’d have never known it from the way he was dancing and conducting, Anthony had only slept for two hours because he’d spent the evening celebrating the double Tony Award win of his friends and comrades of A Strange Loop. Whenever a potential snafu threatened to interrupt his staging, instead of yelling like the mostrous conductor that J.K. Simmons played in the movie Whiplash, Anthony would smile and shimmy his shoulders as if he’d been presented with a delicious Sudoku puzzle. From there, he’d confer with his leadership colleagues, answer a few questions from the ensemble, and allow the solutions to flow without tension.  

That ease and sense of fellowship was ever present throughout both three hour rehearsals that I attended. Even when a member had to step away to appease her twin toddlers, or when another had to comfort her dog. 

As Anthony put it, “You can’t have a revival if you’re making it impossible for people to show up.” Though this might have slowed a few things down, this creative process is the only way to make weird art that’s also of the highest quality―as Diedre O’Connell and Michael R. Jackson mentioned during their Tony acceptance speeches―while honoring his ensemble members and their personhood. 

“It’s hard to get that fusion,” Anthony says, “and you’ll never get there if you’re shutting people down. So our rule is to let people bring it all in.” 

The results have been magical. Following his rehearsal sessions, Anthony sat down with Theatrely to discuss the genesis of his vision, the joy he finds in breaking down barriers, and why he believes that choirs might be the key to healing our society.

You’ve told me that you started conducting when you were 12 years old, but that despite your ingenuity, your school didn't invest in you because they assumed that you had everything figured out.

Yeah, in high school, I had a real onslaught of putting up false appearances. I was lying at church, pretending to be some straight boy. I was lying at school pretending that I had all this money and though I didn't want for anything, we didn't have a lot. 

Do you think that came from a place of wanting people to think better of you than you thought about yourself?

That's exactly what it was.

During rehearsal, you said, “In healing yourself, you heal up to seven generations in your own family and your ancestors.” When you say that you were lying in high school, what I hear is you felt that you had to protect yourself. 

Lying was definitely a means of survival. And I'm very open about the fact that I write things that I need. That’s why queerness is inspiring to me. It helps you understand that people have the ability to change. I wrote “Celebrate You” at the height of a terrible relationship and in response to adrienne maree brown's book, "Pleasure Activism.”

The theme, "songs of liberation" comes to me when I hear your music. For many people that means the Civil Rights Movement, though divorced from the intersectionality of queer liberation. Are Black and Queer rights intrinsicially linked for you?

Yeah. I can't really be anything else. I keep studying Bayard Rustin and Audre Lorde and I see where people were constantly asking them to be one or the other; Black or queer. And their answer was, like mine is, I am both. I cannot cannot separate those things. 

I think that’s why so many queer people are shamans; not because they are born enlightened but because they have to go through harder journeys and dig deeper than others. I had a spiritual reading with a woman, who after asking if I was gay, told me that I had ancestors who were also gay. I’m able to speak out, but they weren’t able to. 

In speaking out, you manifest their voices and make it safer for those who are here to talk about their own struggles.

That’s it.

I notice that there are multi- generations, gender expressions, races, wealth classes- basically, every type of person imaginable in the Fire Ensemble.

Yes. And I've been very intentional about who I'm centering. For lack of a better phrase, white people think everything is for them. Unless you are explicit and say, "this isn't for you," white people will definitely show up because they have time. Meanwhile, I've found there are a lot of folks who say, "Wait, this is for me?" So I made sure when we launched this that it was clear that all people were welcome but that we would be centering LGBTQ and Black folks and other people of color.

Photo: Ahad Subzwari

I’m still working on making things more intentional and plan to for the rest of my life. We've come to some answers together and I'm still learning. One thing I know is that there is supposed to be an ancestral altar in the space, though I recently realized that the altar is not for everybody. It's for my grandmother. I think it's my guide. And she has helped me move through this piece. So we're bringing offerings to her and to everything that has inspired this piece.

I'm learning through specificity that I can still have everyone included, but that different people will have different work to do. I’m curious, what songs are you humming?

The chorus of “Live.” It reminds me of the way I suppressed my feelings when I was diagnosed with HIV. I felt that because I was super privileged, I did not have a right to feel upset. “Live” helps me release painful things that don't serve me. 

We have that in common. I'm also living with HIV. I had a really awful first doctor's visit when I found out. The doctor literally said, "Your physical looks great except for this." And then he left. There was no one to connect me to resources or help. It wasn't until I met a friend a month later that anyone said, “You should go to a clinic and get help.” 

For a long time, I dealt with it by myself. I told two people, one of whom was also living with HIV, which I knew because I'd helped them. But for me, I didn't know what to do. And that made me sad because I always know what to do. But at that moment it was like, “Why am I not doing what I need to do to handle this myself?”  

Then last year at The Revival, my mom was here and I asked her to bring some of my stuff and she saw my medication. My mom’s a nurse and she was like, “Troy. Why didn't you tell me? I found this and we can talk about it.” We actually had a very healing conversation. I'm still working through the shame and healing.

Thank you for sharing this. And for creating this vessel where we can all heal. I’m sure you’ve dealt with ignorant responses to your disclosure. How do you engage with them?

We can love people and also want more of them. I can love people and realize that they're not capable of loveliness yet. The reason I focus on collective liberation and why I started The Revival with the song “Send A Revival; Let It Begin” is because you can't point at anybody else. You have to start with you. Because how are you gonna forgive somebody else if you can't forgive yourself? How can you accept anyone else's fault if you can’t accept your own? 

That's a lesson that I learned when I was coming out. How long did it take me to figure out that I was gay and to be okay with other people knowing? Is it fair for me to then expect someone who's never had the experience to just understand and love and accept? I was raised in that same kind of darkness and stigma and I had to give others a chance to learn to grow. I had to let my family learn how to love me. And I can do that because I have learned the ways in which I hurt myself. 

I can forgive myself, so I can give you some space and time. I don't have to engage with you all the time. I'm gonna let you have your space to do that, but I can give it to you. People are complicated and duality is real and it is a gift to understand that there are layers to this shit. And multiple things that seem opposing can be true at the same time.

Meanwhile, I've been hearing the song title that you just mentioned as "We Need A Revival." Maybe because that's what I need for myself.

You're gonna take from it what you need. 

I'm seeing a social justice component of Black queer liberation providing communal healing to all people so that they can tap into their own freedom. I also love that the audience isn’t just watching; they’re invited to participate as well.

That's why I call it a service instead of a performance. And I call the audience to gather because they have an active role. It’s not sit here and watch; I'm writing songs for you to have as a container for you to do your work. And it's gonna keep working on you. Whenever people are like, “I've got the song stuck in my head.” I'm like, “That means the work is working.” 

I have described The Revival as “church for people who didn't even know there was a God.”

Yes! I feel seen!

Did you write this piece based upon personal experience with being hurt in religious spaces?

It's definitely from a place of “I've been hurt.” My mother and I served on the board of our church. When I was 17, on February the 14th, the church wrote us letters, asking us to step down. And I did not understand why. They listed all these grievances against my mom but nothing for me. My mother didn’t want to say anything, but I went to the board meeting to challenge it and they voted me out to my face. 

This was my church family and I didn't understand. They did a similar thing to a friend of mine who had a child with his girlfriend before they got married. They voted to remove him. He never recovered from that.

I can’t fix the church with The Revival. But I can help people understand that church does not have to be the only place where we are vulnerable with each other; where we can connect or sit with and listen to ourselves. Church has nothing to do with that. But churches have monopolized the technology of being inherently spiritual even though you can have access to that no matter what you believe. 

Photo: Ahad Subzwari

Listening to yourself;  going through the deeply spiritual process of healing yourself; thinking about the people that have come before you and the people that come after you; thinking how we are all connected. Those are all human things and that’s what God is. God does not come from a book. I don't even know if it's a person in the sky. 

I do know that I feel God in the service. I feel the Spirit when I feel people healing themselves. I put that in my music and I get lost in there when I let it take over. That's where the focus should be: you have the power within yourself to heal and liberate yourself. That's not happening outside of you. That's my goal.

What do you think little Black gay boy Troy would feel about what you are doing today?

I think you'd be amazed. I think he would stop hiding and allow himself to be seen as hiding a lot of him and know that that's not as bad as he thinks it is.

I'm grateful to The Shed for giving me this kind of home for three years to figure out what this could be. Because I want a community that gathers in a different way with a different purpose. Part of that is being able to focus on the Fire Ensemble being the star. 

Moving forward, I want to create an environment where students get paid to learn the show and tour it around the city.

Knowing Troy Anthony, that ambition is certain to come to fruition. For now, one can catch The Fire Ensemble in The Revival: Our Duty to Serve at The Shed on June 18 at 7:30 PM. Tickets are free and have already sold out, but interested participants are encouraged to show up for the waiting line for cancellations.

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Juan Michael Porter II

Juan Michael Porter II is a Black gay man living with HIV in the middle of Brooklyn. He is the staff writer of TheBody.com. His bylines include SF Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, Did They Like It?, NY Observer, Time Out NY, American Theatre Magazine, TDF Stages, and SYFY Wire. He is a National Critics Institute and Poynter Power of Diverse Voices fellow, and the first Black man to sit on the Drama Desk Awards' nominating committee.