The Voodoo of Hells Half-Acre: A Blues Poetry Opera


The Voodoo of Hells Half-Acre: A Blues Poetry Opera

A live multimedia theatrical presentation chronicling the story of Mr. Wright from his migration from Mississippi to the decade he spent in Chicago from 1927-1937. The performance involves a ten-piece ensemble that features spoken word poetry, singing, saxophone, piano, upright bass and drums. Musical interludes enhance and animate the 90-minute, six-movement opera.

AIRED: April 14, 2021 | 0:55:57

- [Announcer] The Voodoo

A Blues Poetry Opera

a New Frontiers in the

from Indiana University

for Research.

- You can tell

of Black people in the United

That first movement

That second movement from

the North Eastern

during the second

The third movement

great migration

1.2 million of us.

And then the fourth

the second great

Richard Wright, the novelist,

he was among the 1.2

who left, who quit the South.

I got introduced to Richard

and his novel, A Black Boy,

and that for me was a

I think he knew at

that he wanted to be a writer,

and his impulse is

like Herman Melville,

to people like William Faulkner,

some of the great American

So around the age of 14 or 15,

he writes his first story.

It's a short story called The

It was about a land speculator

who cheated a widow

I thought that would

I thought it would

What it chronicles is

that trek out of Natchez,

and then it actually

his decade that he spent in

So during this period,

Richard Wright is dealing

He's wondering if,

like a lot of Black folks

is has there been a bait

because this was supposed to

but they've been,

they're encountering

noisier kind of reality

that when you strip

and the bigness and the noise,

it kind of resembles the

(laid back jazz music)

- Got to go.

Got to go and get gone for good.

This right now minute.

The air itself

and the ghost of Mississippi,

it's a merciless

Going to leave this place.

Leave the bad times

Gonna leave this hot white evil

and its mistresses behind.

Saying goodbye to my people,

saying bye-bye to clap boards

and tiny spiral dust

whenever we walk to some place.

The air is better up there.

We here hear,

hear my train coming.

Here my train come.

(smooth jazz music)

(tempo quickening)


- We from the land.

We from the land of

Hard complexities of neon

(imitating train rumbling)

Cut-rate cocktail of

running loose through

and cell blocks and

and cell blocks and

and cell blocks of

Delta blues displacement

Doors of no return

up the course of

Northward bound, no money

Canine teeth cut vicious.

Epidermis, dermis,

delicate arteries and

Frightful flowing centuries

(mid tempo jazz music)

We, we, we.

We going to be somebody,

If we, once we, when we,

sing slow Swing

So low they can't hear you

So low, the missionaries

with canticles or curses.

Still they fear you.

They fear you in the country,

meaning South.

Above the din and

above the creak of gin

Li'l half moons

and stained Venetian red.

Above the squeaks of holy women.

The squawks of raucous,

inhaling corn

Angry Black sharecroppers

who spent selfish hours

swilling, swooning, swearing,

memorizing quaint Old

and crafting nowhere lawsuits,

wildly vocal yo mama jokes.

(smooth jazz music)

Wildly, wildly vocal

exclusively to USDA executives

Sharkskin diplomats useful

handing us hard times

Black beat farmers nursing

nursing the non-harmony

of outlawed fields songs,

'round bout midnight.

'Round 'bout midnight

they hear the ghostly

(imitating train rumbling)

Time to cut for Cleveland.

(imitating train rumbling)

Time to pack for Pittsburgh,

then send for sister.

If we, once we, when we,

and it don't stop.

This complexity of bone trails

and riders of dirt roads

becomes the enigma of asphalt,

becomes the bull of Boston,

(smooth jazz music)

They gave us,

they gave us,

they gave us war

Zoot suit riots and

pop top Schlitz and late model

They gave us victory

Genocidal summers

and empty stomachs that bloat.

Moats separating us from the

friends, bad memories,

Attitudes resting beneath

raslin' with dis-ease.

Eczema of a history of

We know some places and

Got no connections or

What people say, it ain't okay.

They still bother us.

Larceny and time in pieces,

hard complexities of neon

(imitating train rumbling)

(energetic jazz music)

The ghast, the ghast,

the ghastly bellow of boats

(imitating train rumbling)

(imitating train braking)

Who knew?

(soothing jazz music)

- My people.

We are terribly similar

We are me and I am thee.

Together we inhabit

of truth and beauty

beneath the sky that

Up here as down there,

we toil and drudge.

We work, we listen,

we speak and are spoken to.

We pray and we wait.

We sing songs of rivers

songs of trouble men,

songs of trifling women.

(soothing jazz music)

(mid-tempo jazz music)

- A City speaks.

A city speaks.

A city speaks its dream tales,

spiteful allegories that whistle

and roar its gangrene streets

its frigid children choke,

its withered veins and dry bones

like halcyon vapors,

elastic, putrid.

(laid back jazz)

A city speaks.

A city speaks its air and flame,

in the corrugated

and daughters frozen in time.

Deathly still,

still as in death,

mired in this space,

dancing hot jig and hucklebuck.

Dancing habeas corpus

and the rhythm of bone smoke

on red clay and


Iron worms crawling fast,

creak past sagging

silver deities inch

through coal black tunnels

and smug temples of

This city.

Its bowels, green politics,

whorehouses, and hot chicken.

The dark corners presage

when thin men immerse themselves

in malt liquor and

of caught catfish.

(smooth jazz music)

Migration men.

Migration men with neck bones

fattened on tripe

and trouble.

Nighttime echoes stir alchemy,

sand, and choruses of warm lust.

This urban Savannah

bullets and bureaucracy,

guns, and butter.

We the city and its pleurisy,

we the city and

undergirding spirit, flesh.

We the city,

grit and ham bone people.

(smooth jazz music)


Carpetbaggers run from

A city speaks.

A city speaks its elixir yield

of music, nets, and

Red hot blues and

from brown satin bellies

and basements where

warming bones,

making greasy children golden.

So speaks a city,


(smooth jazz music)

- Up here Whites pass for Reds.

Blacks cuss and

in grunts and soft echoes.

We work this city's bowels,

and find comfort in corners

where dark cloud,

colors dance and curl.

Up here home is like

Eight families to a bathroom

and work at the post office.

I find we have to

We are confronted and

we have not yet lived.

(soothing jazz music)

Both down there and up here,

we mark time by the

and the quickness in their feet

as they emerge from mills

and the dinginess of

and refineries.

They don't share crops up here.

And the cold is alive and bites.

We take long stares at our hands

and count the lines

as ancient as it is foreboding.

The kitchenette walls

and the hallways haunted by

Of the people before us.

The North is another

We wrestle with the

and the blues we

We are them and they is we.

We take long stares

and at the hands

Where have we come to?

(mid-tempo jazz music)

- That one,

that one standing rooster,

proud on the Avenue of

Nickel-slick dude and

tangerine shoes with

I saw him see me see him,

said he there's ugly

and then there's what you is.

Are, or what we is, was,

times you, times

When he spoke, he said,

I, we, remind him of America.

Me, us, her vicious song,

her dialectic solemn unsexy,

poison us to the touch,

to the taste,

to the mercury in

She too sings.

America, the Virgin

by still lit fires

the vesper of dead tree spirits.

Virgin whore telling

and try to forget me nots.

Chicago reminds me of the South.

Its Lugosi teeth full of dead

Injuns and Negras and Crackas.

(mid-tempo jazz music)

See there?

See, see, see, see, see how

How it hollows out whole people?

Black, Brown, Beige,

Check out how it

and blinks as it's chewing.

Virgin whore spewing hate in

Blinks and belches as it chews.

Guts all twisted.

It cranks out folks like

North ain't nothing but

North ain't nothing but

just colder, less sticks,

and more bricks and classifieds.

Just more callous like

hearts, heads, and

I know a dude named

He got them,

always gets them hauling

from horse drawn wagon,

up and down the South side of,

South side side streets,

singing strawberries,

nice and sweet.

My price you can't beat.

Yeah, Chicago.

(mid-tempo jazz music)

♪ Strawberries ♪

♪ Raspberries ♪

♪ Nice and sweet ♪

♪ Strawberries ♪

♪ Raspberries ♪

♪ Nice and sweet ♪

Chicago, same old blues.

Chicago, same old

Yeah, Chicago, same old blues.

We breakin' up big

breaking rocks and

breaking rocks out

'Cause I been

Hold it steady right

There, I reckon that

And that one, and that one,

and that one over there with

stingy brim, thick and thin,

big smile, like a

and the Juju jet

tells me, he say,

Hey, there's always

Tells me, he say, they

Just misery woebegone

Cops and wops and we can't

Cotton field, factory

And we another notch in

way up North Jim

13th floor of a tenement blues.

Not too Southern,

not on the ocean,

but still on the water blues.

♪ Just white folks

♪ You brought this misery ♪

♪ To you they cling ♪

(mid-tempo jazz music)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Yeah, we learned real quick.

We learned real quick

that the bottom

not no real like bottom, bottom.

We were caught and

that we had to reach up

And the defender

and me and him and them and us.

And it had to really defend us

like Leibowitz did Scottsboro.

Dandelions come up through

We learned.

We learned that

on the lips of spiritus mundi,

limitless Northern expanse

digesting Blacks like

like blocks and blocks and cell

new Negroes grinning.

Not, not winning,

Grinning yet not winning.

Winning, no, not yet.

Take this hammer.

Take this hammer.

Take it to the captain.

Tell him we gone.

Tell him we gone.

Take this hammer.

Take it to the captain.

Tell him we gone.

And if he asked you

tell him we was flying.

Tell him we was flying home.

(flowing jazz music)

Lost, lost and found,

we look round and round.

Marble stoops and murder books,

simulacrum in the now, the

In the DNA of the DOA here

In the smoke tint glass and

less Virgin whore

about the working class,

our Blackness itself.

A thing thingfully

and timeless as horrific

and beautiful as that

flightless upright ancestor,

seeking like us.

We did us.

We did and do.

We weary worried travelers,

exchanging auction

and Negro for Colored,

and Colored for Black and blue.

And we are Black bodies

even way up South.

Still, still, still, still,

still, still, still, still,

still, still, still, still,

still, still, still,

Still, still, still,

We make music from the

We make music.

We make music all day


(soulful jazz music)


♪ Strawberries ♪

♪ Strawberries ♪

♪ Raspberries ♪

♪ Nice and sweet ♪

We make music from the

We make music all day

We make music.

We make music from the

We make music all day

We make music.

We make

♪ Strawberries ♪

We make music.

We make music to the

♪ Strawberries ♪

We make music to the

We make music all day till

till, till the making's done.

(smooth jazz music)

(slower jazz music)

- We are the fountains.

We are the lakes, the rivers,

The Bethesda pool

and pour sweet alms.

We gather and crystallize in a

the genius of our Juju

with which we speak

We speak in tongues,

in the softness of earth

We speak a complex language

that spring devouringly

of right knowing.

We personify something

We speak our truth

(smooth jazz music)

(upbeat jazz music)

- Where V is the final velocity,

and U the initial velocity,

A, the acceleration,

and S, the distance traveled

there comes a crowd.

Almost always semi-circle,

a delightful crescent moon orbit

of small brown framed sisters,

spinning arabesque on the

feet rocking back and forth

and forth to a music spun

and technique.

No time for giggles

No time for Good

the sting of Bactine,

No time to decode the wondering,

wandering hands of play cousins.

Maybe he half Cherokee.

Maybe he like me like me.

No time, too late.

Her turn.

Get in.

Able Mabel, Mary

be young, be gifted,

♪ Miss Mary Mack ♪

♪ All dressed in black ♪

♪ All dressed in black ♪

♪ Miss Mary Mack ♪

♪ All dressed in black ♪

♪ Miss Mary Mack ♪

♪ All dressed in black ♪

(upbeat jazz music)

Where U, the initial velocity,

where U, the initial velocity,

they bounce, bounce, bounce,

they bounce, bounce, bounce

bewitchingly, daringly,

one foot in, one foot out.

They count in ginger snaps.

Applique suspender skirts

They speak the waggle dance

Catch me if you can.

Cadence of diamond-spoked tease,

the everywhere sun sermonizes

and bastes the butter brown

as radiance begets innocence,

and innocence begets back flips

in the crystal

of their oil-sheen star shine.

Somewhere nearby, clothesline

(upbeat jazz music)

♪ Miss Mary Mack ♪

♪ All dressed in black ♪

♪ Miss Mary Mack ♪

♪ All dressed in black ♪

♪ Miss Mary Mack ♪

♪ All dressed in black, black ♪

Somewhere nearby, clothesline

kidnapped, conscripted

recruited for rope duty

For this coterie,

this quarter moon of

who be turning, twitching,

who be yearning, itching.

It be they turn,

they time to cut wind.

They turn to the scratch ground.

They turn to incite sisterhood

with wire and rope chants,

pat their feet.

They cite, recite,

migration folktales, fairytales,

No time, too late, her turn.

Get in.

Able Mabel, Mary

Be young, be gifted,

♪ All dressed in black ♪

♪ Miss Mary Mack ♪

♪ All dressed in black ♪

♪ Miss Mary Mack ♪

♪ All dressed in black ♪

- Where X, where X is unknown,

and A, the acceleration.

S, the distance traveled.

They smile miles of smiles.

They smile, they turn.

Jump up, up, up,

sing songs of dishes

of pinks and greens

They swing and jazz

They smile, they turn,

They've bend, break laws.

They cast curvilinear

and teacakes upon water.

And then they

And then they clap, clap, clap.

They count, count, count.

They clap, clap, clap.

They count, count, count.

They clap, clap, clap.

Then they dance.

Then they dance the

of poly-rhythms, of rainbows.

They speak in tongues

They speak homegirls

They speak hoodoo

They speak earthquakes

They speak the then

and dust tracks on roads.

The now of paper lies,

here lies their

They speak and sing the

of twist-outs and box braids,

flat irons and

Caramel dark language of

Black angels, they speak

The righteous rhythm of

A stitch or two and time,

no time, too late, her turn.

Get in.

Able Mabel, Mary

be young, be gifted,

Be young, be gifted,

Be Black, Black, Black.

Be young, be gifted,

Be Black, Black, Black.

Be Black, Black, Black.

Be young, be gifted,

Be young, be gifted,

Be Black, Black, Black.

Be Black, Black, Black.

Be Black, Black, Black.

Be Black, Black, Black.

(pensive jazz music)

- Time to go.

We have gotten what

seen what we came to see.

We have been where

However, we are still

I fear we have ingested

We have been told and

of this existence,

of what this place is,

what it truly is.

We have not exchanged

We have instead exchanged

for daggers and javelins.

Our windows are

Move on we must.

(lively jazz music)

- Chicago is Sunday cheese grits

garnished with pepper

scrambled eggs,

mayonnaise sandwiches,

apple butter biscuits, and

Chicago is knowing neighbors

who know you plus the

like the one eyed spooky

wearing a frock

keeping her eye on things.

Dee Dee Richards

If we were having too much fun,

or got too close to

she was just mad.

She was just mad,

because we were fresh

with no concept late rent,

with no concept of time spent

with no time to genuflect

taken with flash powder cameras.


(lively jazz music)

Chicago is green dumpsters,

oxidized dumpsters of discarded

Funky emerald sentinels

outside brown tenements.

Brown tenements housing

Brown tenements housing

spending good money on

setting off

and watching with a hypnotic

as rats and roaches come

Pesky POWs who shall never

faint on the kitchen floor.

Surrender to a higher power,

like a church-going auntie.

Chicago is a cream

camouflaged with

(lively jazz music)

And warped, and warped,

and warped wooden porches

snake alleys that swallow

Snake alleys that

men with holes and shadowy

bragging about how

how they pitch pennies with him

in front of the last

Chicago is the gospel

Winos with razor bumps,

bragging about the

who they never knew of,

who they never knew

as though philosophizing

when truth be told,

they just jiving.

Just jiving and side-winding,

telling overripe lies

up and down winding

shedding the decayed

and sunning themselves

marking the perimeters


(lively jazz music)


Chicago is hot side streets.

Hot side streets with

pressed deep into

Yellow lines losing

silently acquiescing

of El Dorados and 442s.

Nine days times nine

Old women with puffy ankles

finishing half

standing, stirring hot pots

Chicago sees.

Chicago sees the innocence

in orange short sets,

holding Barbie court.

Little princesses

in sizzling circles

and cutthroat jump rope,

soprano seances.

So out you may go,

with the dirty, dirty dish rag

on your left and right toe.

Then the cooling.

Then the cooling.

(smooth jazz music)

The cooling, the

by cool Black boys, native sons,

liberating dishwater and bath

creating a Bethesda

The jagged edges

professionally polished

against raggedy strips

Big Black boys tenaciously

Little Black boys

clad in corduroy pants

streaking with knobby pockets of

Belinda's and stolen air caps,

traveling the trunks of

Little Black boys,

little Black boys,

little Black boys

of hydrant water and Pomade.

Water-logged little boys

stretched out on sultry streets,

of black street.

The amalgamation of cold

parties with their senses

as they dream bad dreams.

(smooth jazz music)

As they dream,

as they dream bad dreams of

Good dreams of fist

talking stuff through window

sporting marble barrettes

Good dreams of acting

Elaborate back flips off

in the corner lot next

Little Ninja sleep deep

soak up sun-soul in

lost in a maze of

under the gaze of a

sipping cold Duck

From his mama's front porch.


(smooth jazz music)

I said, we said sipping

from his mama's front porch.

Chicago is the link,

the lingering link in a

The last link in a

Chicago is finding

hungry Black souls whining.

Chicago is Black children.

Chicago is Black children

on the Tastee Freeze truck.

Tasting raindrops

dreaming of cereal presents,

and how they going to

when they hit the number.

Chicago is a Sunday bath,

to bathe off lightening

going to sleep in anticipation

of seeing a fifth grade

Iowa tests and

raspberry Glage and pinky bets,

monkey bars and Chico sticks,

innocuous giggles

of old Mary Mack, Mack, Mack,

Old Mary Mack, Mack, Mack,

All dressed in

Chicago is being dressed

Chicago is being dressed

Chicago is being dressed

Black, bittersweet

Chicago is Black, it's

It's memories remembered.

It's Black, it's

It's memories remembered.

Chicago, it's Black,

It's memories remembered.


(smooth jazz music)

The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre:

A Blues Poetry Opera

a New Frontiers in the

from Indiana University Office

of the Vice President