Creating The Gathering: Conversation with Jonathan McCrory, Leatrice Ellzy, and Derek Bermel

Over the past three years, American Composers Orchestra has been collaborating with the Apollo Theater and National Black Theatre to create The Gathering: A Collective Sonic Ring Shout. A one-night only experience, this sonic quest is rooted in the African and African-American ritual of the Ring Shout, an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and in the United States, in which worshipers move in a circle while shuffling, stomping, and clapping.

ACO’s development director Lyndsay Werking recently spoke with Derek Bermel, ACO’s Artistic Director, Jonathan McCrory, Executive Artistic Director of National Black Theatre and the director of the evening, and Leatrice Ellzy, Senior Director of Programming at Apollo Theater. They shared the three-year journey of this collaboration and what audiences can expect from this singular experience that merges existing orchestral music, new commissions, spoken word, and the tradition of the Ring Shout.

Read the full conversation below, and get your tickets for Saturday, May 7, 2022 8:00pm at the Apollo Theater today. In the tradition of the ring shout, audiences are encouraged to wear white.

Lyndsay Werking (LW): Derek, can you tell me where the idea for this evening started with ACO?

Derek Bermel (DB): We wanted to present the New York Premiere of Joel Thompson’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. Joel’s piece is incredibly powerful, and we wanted to amplify it by making it the centerpiece of a program. We approached the Apollo with the idea and there was immediate synergy around the goal of bringing this work to a New York audience.

LW: Leatrice, can you tell me more about what attracted the Apollo to sign-on to this project?

Leatrice Ellzy (LE): There were a few things that were attractive from the Apollo standpoint. The first thing was considering the moment we were in as a society. We pride ourselves on recognizing the moment and to responding to how the moment is impacting and connecting with Black and African-American communities. We saw the opportunity to be part of a conversation and to push that conversation forward.

The second thing that resonated with us was the opportunity to provide a Black composer with a space. We find there are not always spaces for Black composers to present and share their music, especially within the classical music sphere. Not only could we provide Joel with a space, but we could provide space for this work within a black community. A chance for him to share his messaging with people he doesn’t always get a chance to share with.  

Finally, Apollo has always enjoyed partnering with other institutions. The chance to build a new partnership was very enticing.

An excerpt of a documentary created in 2016 by Bob Berg and the Michigan Media, featuring University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club under the direction of Eugene Rogers. For the complete documentary, please visit

LW: How did Jonathan McCrory get introduced to the project?

LE: As we all collectively sat down and started thinking about the project, Kamilah Forbes, the Executive Producer of the Apollo, brought her creative mind and started thinking about possibilities of who might conceptualize a larger experience and drive the programming. Apollo is great at presenting, but we don’t always have the capacity to produce larger works. We often bring in partners – organizations and individual artists – to help us execute the more expansive projects, like this one. We asked ourselves: Who can take this, pick it up, put their arms around it, and drive it forward? We’d already been working with Jonathan and National Black Theatre on another project, so we invited him to discuss it. 

LW: Jonathan: what was your response to the invitation?

Jonathan McCrory (JM): Kam, who I consider to be a big sister, sent me a text message saying she wanted to partner with me on this musical program. I had an imposter syndrome moment because it was all music, which I don’t usually do. What became clear was Seven Last Words as a center piece awakens the psychic and blood grief of witnessing the death of black bodies. The words radio out a DNA code that we sit with, navigate and build a life from.

LW: Derek and Jonathan, you had Joel’s Seven Last Words of the Unarmed chosen, how did you build a program around that work?

DB: When Jonathan came into the picture he put Joel’s work into the context of a larger, multi-dimensional history. Joel’s piece became a generative force.

We had also chosen to co-commission the orchestral version of Carlos Simon’s AMEN!, which he had originally written for band. He has a long history with ACO as a winner of the 2016 Underwood Readings, from which ACO commissioned him to write Portrait of a Queen. The Gathering marks our third engagement with him.

Similarly, Courtney Bryan’s Sanctum was commissioned by ACO in 2015. Courtney wrote Sanctum in response to police violence, and as Jonathan says, it brings street protest into the concert hall. It also adds recorded sound to the program, reminding us that technology has provided vital evidence as protest movements demand justice and accountability. She has a long relationship with ACO, having participated in the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute in 2011 and then EarShot with ACO in 2013.

University of North Texas Wind Symphony performance of Carlos Simon’s AMEN! recording live April 5, 2018.

JM: Thinking about these three existing works, Seven Last Words, Sanctum, and AMEN!, we go from a space of grief to reflection, and then to a space of Amen and celebration. We started having a conversation about creating a journey to take the soul higher.

At this point, we had a 30-45 minute program but we needed it to be 45-90 minutes. Our conversation soon shifted to asking, What is the container in which all of this is happening? Part of that was bringing my own knowledge and part of that was bringing National Black Theatre. I’m artistic director and Sade Lythcott is our CEO. I draw so much fortitude from the NBT team. I asked Kam about bringing my NBT village to the project and soon we were talking about creating a dynamic space around collaboration and exploring the liminal space.

LW: Where did the inspiration for exploring Ring Shouts come from?

JM: One day I was washing dishes and watching a documentary about the Black Church. There was a short mention of Ring Shout, which reminded me of that language that I knew. I started considering the idea of Ring Shout. How could we bring a nexus of a safe container for the audience, and set the stage for whatever happens in the space to be a transformation for themselves but not necessarily for the rest of the world?

That’s where the idea of Sonic Ring Shout came from. We decided to create a call and response between the existing works and newly commissioned works. We’re reimagining what a Ring Shout could be. This isn’t traditional. We are taking a legacy that is baked into my ideas as a Black person. Taking that blood memory and using it in this critical moment.

The Ring Shout is still performed by the Geechee and Gullah people of the Georgia and South Carolina coast. Don’t know the Shout? Meet the McIntosh County Shouters in this Georgia Public Broadcasting segment from 2017.

Joel’s work and this program was timely in 2020 when our conversations began, and even more so in 2022. We’re being riddled with psychic and emotional changes all the time.

What’s special about this program is the durational relationship between the collaborators. What’s so profound is that ACO, NBT, Apollo, Donna Walker-Kuhne – all of us – we’ve all been at the precipice of staying with each other during a pandemic, imagining what we could create. The performance on May 7th is the culmination of a 3-year promissory note.

The pandemic gave us space and time to think about how to bring continuity to the conversation. With poet and writer Mahogany Brown, we discovered the notion of 7 Roots through 7 Chakras. Multimedia designer Kathleen Frier is creating new projections to help us amplify how the audience experiences the work. We’ve been looking at nuanced ways of viewership. By the end, we’re hopefully activating folks to be in charge of their own destiny and their own self-care.

LW: Jonathan can you share your inspiration for proposing the four other musical works on the program?

JM: The four other artists are helping to flesh out the notion of call and response. How do you step from one level of emotion to another and another? They all have deep sensibility around Black aesthetic and spirituality. They are top professionals when it comes to the use of sound in American and African traditions, and of the American global sound as well. What I want to uplift in picking these folks – Abby Dobson, Jason Michael Webb, Toshi Reagon, and Nona Hendryx – they are all folks whose works gradually take you to nirvana.

Abby is deeply connected to who she is and where she comes from.

Jason has been indoctrinated in the Pentecostal/Baptist sound including church rhythms and chords.

Toshi brings a grassroots perspective. Someone who takes you back to where it all began, something that is both simple and divine.

Nona encapsulates all that is and ever will be with sonic journey. She will bring us back to the place that Abby starts us out in. Her expands us in the space that Carlos’ AMEN! takes us.

In considering these artists, I was thinking, who is going to help break the psychic distance of orchestral music? Who will help us reclaim this music as a Black aesthetic? We are welcome in orchestral music, we have contributed, we can lean into the curiosity and innovation of classical music.

Excerpt of Heaven by Nona Hendryx

LW: Derek and Jonathan, can you tell me more about the collaboration between the two of you?

DB: I come from a theater family, so I have great respect for the larger stage vision that Jonathan brought to the table: what the evening could be beyond just music. Orchestral music was the touchstone, of course, but I wanted to serve his larger vision in terms of the Ring Shout. I admire his tenacity, I’m grateful for his flexibility and his empathy, and I’ve learned a great deal from him and Sadé in the process.  That goes for Leatrice, Laura, and Kamilah as well; they bring such a breadth of knowledge, good taste, and experience; I couldn’t ask for better partners.

JM: What I’ve found quite beautiful is that we’ve discovered blessings within the pandemic. There is a bond between everyone who has worked on this project. The pandemic provided a pause. There were conversations around granular things that we would have had to rush otherwise. There is a gestation and ying-yang we’ve been able to do. This work, appearing on May 7, can be a reflection on the thoughtful reaction to how we meet our current need.

Excerpt of Courtney Bryan’s Sanctum

LW: Jonathan, with your vision, we’ve created more than a concert. Tell me more about what we will be hearing and seeing along with the music.

JM: Audience will be having an engagement that will hopefully have them leaning forward in their seats. My director’s note really captures what the audience can expect:

In this sacred space you are welcomed holy. You are welcomed to share your holes and tattered pieces. You are welcome to holistically receive a sound, a message, a word strung together by symphonic dissonance and harmony. In this gathering we welcome the response. In this gathering we find collective liberation. This evening draws on a technology that is old and ancient, that traveled within individuals stolen and sold into indentured servitude. These architects of liberation carried with them I technology, a Ringshout, that would remind their spiritual, physical, emotional and mental selves how to access liberation in the midst of a peculiar institution, slavery. This Ringshout was their elixir, giving them an antidote. 

Now in 2022 that institution has morphed and changed still with the same goal to oppress/control and as we live, breathe and navigate a pandemic let this sonic journey of seven works be a gift, a salve, a disruptor. An evening inspired by the work of the 7 Last Words of the Unarmed by Joel Thompson, with an open heart we welcome you to receive a sonic sound forged out of a promissory note not to only name our grief yet celebrate our joy. Drawing in additional technology by architects of liberation such as Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, Sweet Honey N’ Rock, and so much more to help shape the bowl. This evening is meant to allow for brokenness to usher in new possibilities within everything we do! Find grace in this journey and with an open ear know it was crafted just for you. This is a love note. Welcome to the Gathering.

LW: Leatrice, can you tell me about adjacent programming that’s been presented leading up to the culminating performance?

LE: We decided early on that we wanted to engage community. So, we put together a list of what that community engagement might look like. In doing so, we wanted to leave breadcrumbs for the community to take a journey with us. Starting in January 2022 there has been one event every month. They are meant to build interest in the performance but also to create community for people to talk to each other about it.

In January, we had our Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. event, Uptown Hall: MLK, Activism, and the Arts, which introduced the idea of this beautiful music with a choir. The Deep River recital at the Green Space in February continued that theme. In March, we addressed Healing Joy and Liberation. We understand that in the pandemic communities across the country have struggled with mental health and stability. We wanted to talk about how to heal, and how to be well within yourself, your own family, and within community.

In April, we’re engaging the Ring Shout and inviting community to be part of one. There have been so many questions about, “What is a Ring Shout?” Audiences will now get an opportunity to experience it for themselves.

Recording of Deep River: Black Currents in Classical Music, a recital curated by Dr. Howard Watkins, renowned pianist and Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, featuring acclaimed soprano Karen Slack and baritone Kenneth Overton. A community engagement program co-presented by The Greene Space, the Apollo Theater, WQXR, and American Composers Orchestra in support of The Gathering.

LW: Leatrice, Derek, and Jonathan, do you follow any rituals?

LE: I generally have a practice of prayer and meditation in the mornings. Since I moved to NYC, I can see the sunrise from my building which I couldn’t see in Atlanta. When the sun is up, I’m up. I’ve been able to integrate that with my conversations with God and my ancestral guides in the morning. The other thing I do everyday is call my husband who is still in Atlanta.

JM: I put my green powder in my water. I drink a cup of fresh green juice. I light a candle on my altar every day. I have a practice with my plants. Someone told be about mindful gardening: if I’m going to water my plans, I should water myself too. I water my roots when I water plants.

DB: One of the things my dad always told me is to take 10 deep breaths every day. Part of that is trying to put things into perspective. Some of what we’re dealing with are first world problems. I try to be thankful. I take some time to reflect on what I have as opposed to what I don’t have. I am so grateful for this collaboration with these organizations, but particularly with the relationships we have with the specific people connected to them. Each collaboration is a gift.

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