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Joseph C Phillips, Jr.: The Grey Land

Rebecca L Hargrove (soprano), Kenneth Browning (narrator); Numinous (New Amsterdam)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Joseph C Phillips, Jr
The Grey Land
Rebecca L Hargrove (soprano), Kenneth Browning (narrator); Numinous
New Amsterdam NWAM 147   62:27 mins

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Joseph C Phillips, Jr has blogged that ‘this particular moment … does not afford me, an American Black male, the privilege of being silent about the systemic issues our country has never had the willingness to fully tackle.’ Through 13 vivid episodes, The Grey Land confronts the lived reality of systemic racism and police brutality for generations of Black Americans.

Conceived in 2011 and given focus by the 2014 Ferguson protests, the opera’s completion in 2020 feels timely indeed in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the renewed urgency of Black Lives Matter. Placing mothers powerfully at the core of multimedia testimony, Phillips conveys the sorrow, agony, rage and sheer exhaustion of the struggle while at the same time radiating a shared strength, beauty and determination.

Soprano Rebecca L Hargrove and narrator Kenneth Browning embody all these as mother and son, deftly aided by Phillips’s own 28-piece Numinous ensemble in giving voice to a collective cry for justice that echoes through the years. Skilfully blending art and vernacular styles, the composer’s ‘mixed music’ idiom lends sociopolitical thrust to a post-minimalism that suffuses the work with added poignancy in light of the historic neglect of Julius Eastman, his minimalist precursor.

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Steph Power