BILL T. JONES has his work cut out for him. And he knows it. As an innovative and energetic choreographer and director, his name heads the list of top avant-garde artists working in the United States. Mr. Jones has signed on to a formidable project: directing a 1949 musical tragedy based on Alan Paton's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Cry, the Beloved Country," for the Boston Lyric Opera. The production opens Jan. 17.
Interviewed at the start of rehearsals for "Lost in the Stars the name composer Kurt Weill gave to his adaptation of the Paton novel - Jones says the challenges kept him awake at night. But if anyone could spark excitement into this "odd but beguiling creation," as he calls the musical, he would be the person.
There's no getting around the irony underlying this musical: "Lost in the Stars" is a dramatization by a European composer (Weill) of a novel by a white South African (Paton) about the experience of a fictional black African preacher (Stephen Kumalo). And now, the entire weight of Paton's story rests with Jones, an African-American director, whose staging will be scrutinized for political messages and musical deviations.
Another catch is that the music, at least on one of the recordings, sounds like a cross between "Porgy and Bess" and Weill's better-known "The Threepenny Opera." It doesn't sound the slightest bit like what we now expect of African music. The reason, of course, is that Weill took his inspiration from what he knew best: European cabaret songs and American folk tunes.
"It doesn't sound like South Africa. It sounds like Weill. And I wrestled with that a great deal," Jones says with a wide smile. (The seriousness of the conversation was frequently offset by his deep and good-natured laughs.) m looking at it as a good piece of musical theater, written by a European from a certain class," he says.
But what about his own sensibilities in regard to Paton's book, and Weill's adaptation? How does he reconcile his own view of the world with theirs?
"I'm not a person of the '50s. What it means to be black, progressive, and political in the '90s is to look back on the '50s and see what's not there. Who's telling the history in Alan Paton's book and in this play? Have I grown enough as an artist that I can go back into someone else's world and keep myself in some way detached, or is that dangerous?"
What concerns Jones is that many people of color feel themselves shut out from the very theatrical and musical traditions he's been enlisted to promote.
"In Minneapolis a young black girl asked me, 'Why do they always tell us about Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare? Why don't you do something more hip?' She was saying something important. Opera for me is a battleground where cultures are in collision. Opera traditionally doesn't belong to a lot of people. It still has its pedigree written all over it.
"We need about another 50 to 60 years of listening and getting good composers who take seriously what those Europeans said about opera coming from the vernacular. What composer out there right now is going to write the tunes that these kids will hear in a way that an Italian would have recognized in 1700 his culture in those beautiful notes?"
To encourage a connection between school children and "Lost in the Stars," the Boston Lyric Opera joined up with an educational organization that brings special events into classrooms via live two-way television. Fourth- through eighth-graders also took backstage tours and had the singers visit their schools. Jones's secret weapon
Still another challenge for Jones involves the strong impression that today's audiences have of South Africa from television.
"We get excited about what we love - the myth of Africa, the reality of African culture. Then we have [the musical]. Drums don't play a part in this music.... I've been angry at Weill; now I just accept his decision as an elder statesman of world music."
But Jones has a secret weapon: movement. He's tinkering with the idea of giving the chorus dance movements that have more of an African flavor than Weill's music. It's risky, as the choreographer admits.
"I'm asking myself, could it just happen that they're dancing to another soundtrack almost? Could we have our own rhythms going ... ?" He leaves the question hanging. ll try it in rehearsal and throw it out if it doesn't work." Hearty laugh.
When the suggestion comes up that he may be labeled a revisionist director, Jones says, "The movement can't get in the way of the drama. When the dancing is appropriate, I try to find it. Production numbers scare me to death usually, when you have all these singers out there being told, 'Step, step, step; now look lively, now raise your arms!!' No. It should look like if you were watching the evening news and a train platform in South Africa the way that people would be moving. It should look that natura l." The musical on Broadway
One of the criticisms originally leveled at the musical was the language - Paton captured in rich poetic terms the thoughts and emotions of his characters; playwright Maxwell Anderson tried to keep that richness in "Lost in the Stars," with the result that audiences found bits of the dialogue stilted. That, combined with the tragic nature of the plot, kept the musical from commercial success, but it ran on Broadway from October 1949 until July 1, 1950. It was Weill's last work. He died midway through the
Paton's story is relevant today: A rural black minister tries to bring his son home from the temptations of the big city. Stephen Kumalo finds his son, Absalom, but is too late to save him from the consequences of his rashness. In a robbery attempt, Absalom kills the liberal son of a white landowner. The tension between the two fathers forms the abiding metaphor in the novel.
Jones looks further: "The book is not, and I want this musical to be, not so much about injustice. It's about justice. It's about what reparations are made to Africa. Ndotsheni [the town where the story occurs] is a microcosm of the whole plight of post-colonial Africa. You know the question [filmmaker] Spike Lee poses in 'Do the Right Thing'? This book is about doing the right thing. Never mind whose fault it was that Ndotsheni is a mess. Never mind that two young men are killed. It's not so much about injustice, but truly understanding the nature of justice. And that's why it's a profound book." 'Lost in the Stars' is at the Emerson Majestic Theater, 219 Tremont St., Boston, Jan. 17, 19, and 21.