The choir’s acting music director, Jacqueline Coren, said this concert will be a little different from the choir’s usual concerts.
“Most of our choir concerts try to be relevant to issues, whether some social or political issue,” she said. “So it’s not outside the realm of what we do. I’d say that the difference is we aren’t focusing on one particular issue, but sort of a diversity of concerns. There seems to be such a welter of issues floating around the news these days from unemployment to the economy in general, the wars, the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and things like that. So we, being aware of the diversity of concerns, thought that we would highlight that aspect of things in the format of a news program. So we have an emcee who’s sort of a news anchor and Debra D’Alessandro from WPXN is going to be the emcee of the show. So we’re trying to do it in a lighthearted, humorous overview way. I think we’re trying to show what is facing us as a country these days.”
Taking on worrisome issues in the news headlines is a tall order considering the roller coaster ride this year has been. Coren said there are a few issues that have meant more to the choir this year than others.
“I think because we have the gay and lesbian community as part of our makeup, I’d say ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” she said when asked what issue impacted the choir the most. “I think a lot of the divisiveness in our political factions have been on our minds so we’re singing a song called ‘Unity’ to raise common ground among us. There’s a song called ‘There’s Hope’ that we’re hoping, at the end of the concert, will lift us all together to recognize that we’re all still one country. In some cases, some of the songs are a bit of a stretch — the environment controlled by the powerful and the rich — those will be issues that will be addressed.”
Adding another level of excitement to the concert is a featured musical guest performance by Sharon Katz of the Peace Train.
Katz, an out South African singer-songwriter and activist, made history in her home country when she formed the country’s first multicultural and multilingual performing group in 1992.
Then in 1993, Katz embarked on a concert tour, “The Peace Train,” featuring multicultural artists encouraging people of all races, cultures, ages and political affiliations to put down their guns and hostilities and to prepare for the country’s transition to a peaceful democracy. Her performing group became known as “The Peace Train” soon after — as the world watched Nelson Mandela become South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
Since then, Katz has toured the world speaking and performing. This will be the second time she has performed with Anna Crusis.
“They got wind of the fact that I was a visiting artist, and I have made a home base in Philadelphia over the years,” she said. “I got the call again from them this year and I immediately agreed. It’s in keeping with my political views and social justice issues, and I love performing with the choir. In terms of social justice issues, we have a lot in common. They’ve always been about that. My life’s dedication and struggle has been to end racism in any way, shape or form. Having grown up in South Africa. apartheid, which is such an evil institution, has forced me to confront, for example, breaking laws just to go visit my friends in their homes in the 1960s. Fortunately, thank God, that horrendous system came to an end and I was able the mount the Peace Train Project in South Africa. Of course, being a woman and a lesbian, it’s a natural fit with Anna Crusis. It’s great fun to be with them. We share a common story of struggle.”
Katz is definitely no stranger to struggle. Even after the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, she still travels the world in support of equality and social issues.
“Even today it’s important we stand up against racism. I’m encountering that a lot in terms of my own support of President Barack Obama. There’s a lot of synergy there and I think the audience identifies. I hope we’re not always preaching to the converted at the concerts. When I go out and perform at college campuses across the country, the students definitely resonate with The Peace Train and our message. It’s not preachy. It’s just the music and vibe and the story goes along together. When I’m here, I have a great opportunity to travel and keep on talking about apartheid. It’s like talking about the Holocaust. It’s something that should never ever be repeated. It’s an important message to share.”
When it comes to LGBT equality in South Africa, the nation, while not an oasis of gay rights, is leaps and bounds ahead of most of the continent. Katz attributes this fact to Mandela’s leadership as president.
“There’s a lot of work to be done but fortunately for us we had Nelson Mandela,” she said. “Mandela was just the deep thinker. He was a person who stayed in jail for 27 years, and when he came out of jail he was like, ‘Ha, ha, ha. The Afrikaners were so stupid to put me in jail for 27 years because it gave me time to think.’ He was so brilliant and so broad-minded. He changed the constitution to acknowledge the rights of all people, including specifically gay rights. So we had a head start under Mandela, and our community is very vocal in South Africa. We’ll make sure that we keep the rainbow flag flying high.”
When asked what it was like to see something so longstanding and entrenched as apartheid fall so quickly and completely, Katz said it was “euphoric.”
“It was just a shock the way it happened so quickly,” she said. “If you think about the resistance campaigns that went on for 50 years plus, things crumbled and changed relatively quickly. It was kind of a surprise to all of us but maybe not to the people that were masterminding by remote control. For us it was like ‘Wow!’ Things had to immediately go toward elections. It seemed incredibly sudden. The whole educational system had to be revamped, a new flag, new constitution, a new everything. It was very rapid for the first 10 years. But then at the same time, you were also faced with incredible neglect. There were massive amounts of poverty and unemployment. Of course we were hit terribly with HIV/AIDS. When you’re charged with the mission of needing to do something, all of the problems that are created over those years make it a double-edged sword.”
For the Anna Crusis concert, Coren said that Katz will perform both solo and backed by the choir.
“She suggested three songs that she’ll be singing that we provide the backup for,” she said. “She’s come to rehearsals last week and this week, and we worked on the music before she came. She’s singing about issues that are important to her from a South African perspective. We took our cues from her. Then she’ll be doing her own set and hopefully involve the audience as well. Her mission of peace and political awareness are akin to our own mission: It’s a natural pairing.”
Coren added that the choir is elated to have an artist who is such a positive influence and dedicated activist performing with them.
“She exudes that kind of enthusiasm,” Coren said. “But she’s very respectful. She’s as excited to sing with us as we are excited to be singing with her. But it broadens our perspective because she comes from such a wide range of experience and influence and inspiration from so many people around the world, particularly in South Africa. She has traveled a great deal within the United States and worked in the schools here in the Philadelphia area. So when she comes she brings all that, but it’s such a respectful collaboration and a mutual appreciation that we feel for each other. She makes it very accessible. She treats us with such respect. It’s wonderful.”
The Anna Crusis Women’s Choir with special guest Sharon Katz performs “Breaking News: ‘Anna’dotes to the Headlines,” Dec. 10-11 at Chestnut Hill United Church, 8812 Germantown Ave. For more information or tickets, visit www.annacrusis.com or www.sharonkatz.com.