What do we do with a healthcare system that doesn’t prioritize care and frequently strips away our right to heal? Alexander Lloyd Blake and his choir, Tonality, offered no answers to these questions, but instead created a space to grieve the experiences inflicted upon millions of Americans navigating this institution with “The Right to Heal.” Performed on December 4 at the Colburn School in Downtown Los Angeles, the program examined how the healthcare system impacts families, patients, and healthcare workers, and analyzed the care needed for the LGBTQ community.
Olive Rehearsal Hall accommodated the live performance with “theatre-in-the-round” style seating, which made for an intimate, not too crowded, but not too sparse setting. Before the concert started, the choir uniformly dispersed themselves behind the seated audience, creating a sonic immersion comparable to a Dolby sound stage experience. Blake began with a trigger warning, noting that the performance could open up a flood of emotions. Stationed to the side of Blake was one of the three ASL interpreters to assist those who were deaf or hard of hearing.
The room settled as alto Tehillah Alphonso strolled down the center aisle, retelling her story of navigating the healthcare system as a Black woman experiencing symptoms of Malaria. She admitted she doesn’t know how to fix this broken system, but hopes her experience offers more space to explore viable solutions. Alphonso was the perfect catalyst for this topic because her misdiagnosis and somewhat near-death experience mirror the stories of other Black women and people in this country. It was relatable and poignant, sending a solid message to trust gut instincts over anything.
With only a few moments to process this raw story, the piano cued the choir, and Kim Dawson belted out chillingly, “I’ve been in the storm so long, I’ve been in the storm so long, children, been in the storm so long, oh, give me little time to pray.” The blend between Dawson and the ensemble in “Give Us Our Peace” (text by Langston Hughes, music by Rollo Dilworth) was reminiscent of a Methodist choir on the eastside of Detroit. The positioning of the ensemble around the audience only enhanced the sonic experience, engaging the audience’s sense of touch, sound, and sight.
Tonality curated the evening with four additional personal stories and an immersive sonic experience that ebbed and flowed in darkness, neutrality, and light. The soundscapes varied with solos from sopranos, basses, tenors, and altos. The eleven pieces on the program showed a strong sense of power, community, healing, and authenticity.
A standout on the program was undoubtedly Big White Room, originally composed by Jessie J and arranged by Nathan Heldman, with lead vocals by alto Natalie Gonzalez. Big White Room did not begin with a personal story, unlike the other pieces on the program. Still, the narrative echoed throughout the lyrics, painting a vivid picture of constant poking and prodding. Through tone and texture, Gonzalez’s voice reflected to the audience the emotional and physical burden of being in these medical spaces that are supposed to heal us but end up causing more harm. The composition left most of the audience and the choir wiping away tears.
The program ended with an interactive composition entitled Treat A Stranger Right with music by Blind Willie Johnson, arranged by Moira Smiley and Blake. Blake led the audience in learning the lyrics and the music. He said to feel free to sign, sing, or do both. As everyone chose their own adventure, the choir began singing, “Everybody oughta’ treat a stranger right, everybody oughta’ treat a stranger right, and everybody oughta’ treat a stranger right, a long way from home, a long way a long way from home.” It was a satisfying crescendo to the entire program, leaving the audience full and in good spirits. The lyrics were a reminder that in a country ruled by individualism, strangers’ battles aren’t always apparent, so we should lead with compassion and as much understanding as possible, even when it’s not extended to us.
Without having experienced any of Tonality’s past performances, it wasn’t immediately evident how “The Right to Heal” would unravel beyond the concert. This lack of explanation could cause an adverse reaction, but that might be a part of the journey. Like this performance, the healthcare system is a rollercoaster of unfamiliar emotions and rationale. There’s no telling what the road has in store without walking it and taking in all the lessons it offers. But no doubt, sitting in the space Tonality curated indeed encouraged thought, emotion, and the need to create additional ground for more of these narratives to be encountered and disseminated.
I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.