SCOTT JOPLIN’S Treemonisha
A VOLCANO THEATRE PRODUCTION IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE MOVEABLE BEAST COLLECTIVE
Written in 1911 and reimagined for 2020, Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha begins with the final desperate act of an escaped slave: a young mother hides her newborn daughter in an old tree, moments before she is shot and killed. This baby has a destiny, and through a harrowing and remarkable journey, she will grow into a woman who unites a divided people, and changes the course of her post-Civil War community. Her name is Treemonisha.
Treemonisha is one of the few surviving live performance pieces about the immediate post-slavery era written by a Black person who actually lived through it. Joplin called it an “opera", but it is almost unbelievably progressive for its time, both musically and politically. It fuses classical and folk sounds with Gospel; with the Black precursor to the barbershop sound; and with ragtime’s own signature syncopations. Joplin’s young female protagonist, Treemonisha, is elected by her 1880’s community as their leader - long before women, let alone Black women, were able to vote anywhere in North America. This was truly a new kind of opera.
CELEBRATING TREEMONISHA WITH THE US CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS
Above: Soprano Neema Bickersteth and arranger/orchestrators Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth, in conjunction with Washington Performing Arts, presented an excerpt of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha for the Congressional Black Caucus Avoice award ceremony. Award recipients: Their honours Maxine Waters, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Robert “Bobby” Scott, Bernie G. Thompson and Elijah E. Cummings.
Joplin’s vision – deeply feminist, politically progressive, and musically adventurous – was never to reach the stage. The libretto was problematic – Joplin was a novice librettist. But beyond that, no backer would touch it. The New York establishment was not ready to embrace an opera from a Black composer. Joplin spent his life savings on an unrealized dream, and was to be buried in a pauper’s grave just five years after its completion. His hand-written orchestral parts were tossed in the garbage sometime in the 1960s, and were it not for a piano/vocal reduction he registered with the Library of Congress, Treemonisha would have vanished forever.
It is from Joplin’s remaining piano/vocal score that we are working. In a joint US/Canada creative collaboration, Volcano has commissioned a new libretto honouring the politics of Joplin’s original, and maintaining his setting (Texarkana in the late 1800s). Most of his characters remain, with a much greater emphasis placed on the women. Treemonisha herself is being reassigned more music, given a fuller journey, and a storyline that will resonate strongly with the politics of today. Read more about Leah-Simone Bowen’s approach to writing the new libretto here.
These new words have been retrofitted onto Joplin’s extraordinary melodies, and the whole score is being brought to life by new orchestrations and arrangements, exploring not only the musical style of Joplin’s era, but the music that came before and after him, set for a band that includes both African and Western instruments.
THE NEW STORY
A community has been split in two in the aftermath of slavery. One side were the slaves who remained on the plantations, bore the whippings, and turned to the church. After Emancipation, they were granted land, and limited participation in the system that had enslaved them. The other side fled - and those who survived their escape rekindled an ancient spirituality from their hiding places in the forest.
Treemonisha, raised in a Black plantation community, is set to be married to Remus - a man chosen for her by her father. But on her wedding day, she is shocked to learn that her parents, Monisha and Ned, are not her birth parents. Her biological mother was an escaped slave living in the nearby forest, murdered when Treemonisha was a baby. Moments before her death, she managed to hide her baby in an old tree.
Upon hearing this news, Treemonisha flees her wedding and her community to find the people who live in the forest. She begins to learn the matriarchal ways of these people from their leader, Nana, and discovers a love for a healer named Zodzerick. But her rejection of Remus and her father's wishes clash with her new-found happiness, and Zodzerick is murdered, creating a further rift between the plantation community and the forest runaways. Ultimately, after a harrowing trial of self-discovery, Treemonisha, a child with two mothers, undertakes to mend the torn fabric of her community. For her efforts, she is elected leader of a reunited people.
A Word from Librettist Leah-Simone Bowen
When I found out that Scott Joplin had written an opera with a Black woman as the lead character, I was intrigued. When I found out that he had written the libretto for an all Black cast and that the central conversation in the piece took place within the Black community, I was blown away.
Joplin wrote this piece with an all Black cast and with a conversation that was only happening in his community. I aim to preserve that discussion while allowing this new Treemonisha the space to grow all the while being mindful that history always holds a mirror up to the future. This work is about the things we were told separated us, and how we internalized them. It is about the remnants of memory, trauma, love and joy, but most of all it is about Black women and their extraordinary ability to survive.
It is a love letter to all of the people who came before and to Joplin himself.
Born in the late 1860s somewhere along the border between Texas and Arkansas, Scott Joplin took up the piano as a child and eventually became a travelling musician as a teen. He immersed himself in the emerging musical form known as ragtime and became the genre’s foremost composer with tunes like “The Entertainer,” “Solace” and “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which is the biggest-selling ragtime song in history. Joplin also penned the operas Guest of Honor and Treemonisha. The former is lost to history. The latter survived only as a piano/vocal score. Joplin died penniless in New York City where he was buried in a pauper’s grave on April 1, 1917.
Canada's National Arts Centre through the National Creation Fund;
Stanford Live, Palo Alto, California, with the support of the Hewlett Foundation;
Washington Performing Arts, DC;
Southbank Centre, London UK; and
The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Alberta.
Our thanks to the following organizations who have generously donated their spaces to various stages of the project:
Canadian Opera Company
Soulpepper Theatre Company
Our thanks also to the many singers and instrumentalists in New York and Toronto that have helped our Treemonisha reboot through its ongoing workshop process.
Treemonisha, Score Workshop, 2019. Photography by John Lauener