The garret was 9 feet long by 7 feet wide by 3 feet high, too small for an adult to stand up. It was sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter, infested with rats and mice, and only a small peephole allowed daylight to enter. No one could know anyone was in there.
These were the conditions that abolitionist and author Harriet Jacobs endured for seven years between 1835 and 1842 in order to hide from her abusive master and eventually escape slavery without endangering her children. This is what composer, performance artist, and Castle of our Skins associate artistic director Anthony R. Green asked the audience at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Black Box Theatre to imagine with “It Must All Be Done in Darkness,” his new and harrowing immersive opera.
Compared to the tomb-like space where Jacobs concealed herself from her violent enslaver, Anne Frank’s much more famous secret annex seems a palace. Yet the end of Jacobs’s story (and the opera as well) is much happier than Frank’s. As she later documented under the pseudonym Linda Brent in her 1861 book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” she eventually did escape north, where she reunited with her two children. She lived into her 80s and is buried in Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery.
However, in “Darkness” — which takes its title from a line in “Incidents” — Green created an abstract reenactment of Jacobs’s years in hiding, and took an unflinching focus on the relentless terror that she endured. The result was one of the most disturbing and moving theatrical experiences of my life.
The small black box theater was in almost complete darkness save for a few strategically placed colored lights designed by Sam Keller and a screen at the back of the floor-level stage, which was used to display excerpts from Jacobs’s writings (narrated with subtle grit by poet Angel C. Dye), historical material, photographs and videos from Green’s travels to the North Carolina town where Jacobs was enslaved and hid, and directions to the audience.
“You must be part of the sonic landscape of the experience. Please,” the screen displayed during the piece’s introduction, then asking us to whisper “Harriet Jacobs” and “Seven years.” Small, uncomfortable, and visceral sounds then surrounded the audience, emanating from a few black-clad vocalists and instrumentalists placed throughout the aisles and stage.
Green, dressed in all white, was the visual center of attention, rolling, crawling, and dragging himself across the floor while never letting his head rise higher than three feet. From his throat spilled guttural croaks, keening sobs, muted hums, and shudders. I was suddenly acutely aware of every sound I could even vaguely hear — breathing, the rustle of clothes, a stifled sneeze in the row behind me.
The only other piece I’ve seen that was on this level in conveying terror was Philip Venables’s operatic adaptation of Sarah Kane’s posthumous play “4.48 Psychosis,” but unlike “Psychosis,” “Darkness” used neither sly references to well-known concert music nor sudden auditory jump scares. Nothing was sudden, everything was subtle, and even silences felt unspeakably tense. When Green scratched on the floor or clapped his hands softly, the effect felt thunderous.
Wisps of hymns and songs — “Hush, Somebody’s Callin’ My Name,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — gradually appeared in the soundscape, and I dared not hope for respite. But respite slowly materialized. At last, we were instructed to think of a song that gave us strength in times of trouble and sing it out loud, resulting in an unintelligible but unmistakeably hopeful mishmash. It sounded as luminous as a sunrise after the ordeal Green had re-enacted.
If you see “Darkness,” attend as you would a passion play or ritual, not an opera. I did not enjoy “It Must All Be Done in Darkness,” but it is not a piece to be enjoyed; it is one to be remembered, and I doubt that this experience — and more importantly, the name of Harriet Jacobs — will ever completely fade from my memory.
IT MUST ALL BE DONE IN DARKNESS
Presented by Castle of our Skins. BCA Plaza Black Box Theatre. April 14. castleskins.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.