First performance: May 13, 1995, Zellerbach Playhouse, University of California, Berkeley. Stage direction by Peter Sellars. Musical direction by Grant Gershon, conducting the Paul Dresher Ensemble. Sound design by Mark Grey. Sets by Gronk and other LA graffiti artists.
John Adams on I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
“I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky” was a quote from a survivor of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, a catastrophe that devastated a large part of the northern Los Angeles area. The librettist June Jordan found this phrase in the Los Angeles Times and offered it to me as the title for what I wanted to be a Broadway-style show. After composing two grand operas, “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer,” I’d realized that the only truly indigenous form of American musical thater was what we call, for lack of a more precise term, the “musical.” My first appearance onstage as a child was in a small-town production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”, with my mother acting the role of Bloody Mary. In my youth I knew all the famous American shows more or less by heart, and my later discovery of “West Side Story” convinced me that this particular theatrical form could actually attain the level of genuine art. Another American icon, Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, also stood as a model although as a theaterical entity it had serious formal problems.
“Ceiling/Sky” is essentially a polyphonic love story in the style of a Shakespeare comedy. The characters, all inner-city young people in their twenties, play out their personal dramas against the backdrop of specific social and political themes that were of importance not only to me but to June Jordan (the late poet and much esteemed essayist on African-American culture) and to the stage director Peter Sellars. They include racial conflict, relations with the police and authority in general, the persecution of immgrants (so large an issue in Southern California), and sexual identity. The Northridge quake, a natural catastrophic event that occurs near the beginning of Act II, acts as a kind of Deus ex Machina that forces inner transformations in the lives of the various characters. For this reason June Jordan gave us the whimsical description of the piece: an “earthquake/romance.”
The music consists of 20 songs in the pop mode but with particular Adamsian rhythmic and harmonic twists. For the original production Peter Sellars put the 8-piece amplified band on the stage and asked the singers to act their roles while holding microphones. After the Berkeley run, the second act was substantially revised, several songs added, the band was moved to the pit and the singers given body microphones. The original 1995 production played over fifty performances in Berkeley, Montreal, New York, Edinburgh, Helsinki, Paris and Hamburg.
Dewain: A young black man. Today he’s feeling especially fine beacuse he’s out of jail and on his way to see his girlfriend Consuelo, the mother of his little baby girl. Dewain’s brushes with the law have been pretty minor stuff, and after this most recent lockup he’s determined to clean up his act and get his life back on the right track.
David: In his late twenties, the minister of the neighborhood African American Baptist church. Always smiling, smooth-talking, confident, handsome, he doesn’t hesitate to enjoy the favors of the more attractive young women in his congregation, no matter what form those favors may take. But try as he can, he can’t seem to make those charms work on...
Leila: A black graduate student, now employed in a local Planned Parenthood clinic, where she’s laboring, somethimes in near desperation, to counsel young kids of all ethnic backgrounds about birth control. Among her clients is...
Consuelo: An undocumented immigrant mother from El Salvador, where the father of her four year-old boy was murdered by the death squads. Now she ekes out a hand-to-mouth existence in Los Angeles, an “illegal alien” whose only bright spot in life is her love for Dewain, the father of her newborn second child.
Mike: A white rookie cop in the Los Angeles Police Department. He hasn’t yet developed the cynicism and abrupt bearing that will be expected of him by his cop collegues. In fact he’s something of an activist, viewing his job as a way of helping to turn the neighborhood around and getting the kids on his beat out of gangs and off drugs. He’s even worked with Dewain to develop a boys’ neighborhood basketball league. But his inner conflicts, both social and sexual, are making his life an unberable mass of contradictions, not the least of which is his relationship with...
Tiffany: Prim, pert, airbrushed anchorwoman for a local TV station. With her matching purse, shoes and dressed-for-success business suit she’s the model of televised perfection. A consummate professional, Tiffany’s career is on course for even bigger things. The best part of her job, though, are those hours when she can ride around with Mike in his police car, watching him patrol the neighborhood and do occasional busts on its inhabitants, all of which she captures on camera for her weekly “crime-as-entertainment” show.
Born in LA of parents who were Vietnamese “boat people,” he’s just finished law school and is working as a public defender. Like Mike, he too hasn’t lost his sense of idealism and still believes in the ability of the law to change things for the better. He’s spent his last dollar on a snazzy Brooks Brothers suit (that he can ill afford) in order to look good in court. Rick is about to receive a lesson how the legal system really works and an even more important lesson on how love does and doesn’t work.
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