Social Buttons

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In Context: Steel Hammer

Julia Wolfe and Anne Bogart’s music-theater work Steel Hammer comes to BAM on December 2. Context is everything, so get even closer to the production with this curated selection of articles and videos related to the show. After you've attended the show, let us know what you thought below and by posting on social media using #SteelHammer.

Program Notes

Steel Hammer (PDF)


BAM Blog Questionnaire: It Takes a Village (BAM Blog)
Two singers, a stage manager, and two playwrights describe the multitiered process that brought Steel Hammer to life.

“So Many John Henrys” (BAM Blog)
Julia Wolfe’s libretto “celebrates proliferation and pluralism—an American crazy quilt of contested, telephone-gamed fact.”

“Who Was John Henry?” (
A convict and ex-Union soldier? A slave? Or just a myth? A writer investigates.

Julia Wolfe (NPR)
Wolfe recently won the Pulitzer Prize for another work born from the Appalachian south.

Who Was John Henry? (
Read about the coming to be of SITI Company’s theatrical contribution to Steel Hammer.

Watch & Listen

Excerpt from Steel Hammer (YouTube)
John Henry was from West Virginia. And North Carolina. And South Carolina…

Spotify Playlist: John Henry (
A sampling of John Henrys, from Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt to Bruce Springsteen Johnny Cash.

Now your turn...

What did you think? Has the John Henry legend been suitably turned inside out? Who is John Henry to you? Tell us what's on your mind in the comments below and on social media using #SteelHammer.


  1. I am a big fan of Bang on a Can All-Stars, the new music collective of which Julia Wolfe is cofounder and artistic director. I knew the music in Steel Hammer would be fantastic, and it was -- both instrumentally and vocally. Emily Eagen, Katie Geissinger, and Molly Quinn got quite the vocal workout singing this challenging music. The result was mesmerizing. And speaking of music! Some of my family roots are in Appalachia, and I love the old folk songs of the region. I also love the new music genre. So it was pure pleasure hearing the new sounds of Julia Wolfe's composition combined with harmonica, mountain dulcimer, body percussion, wooden bones, and banjo. SITI Company's ensemble cast members were terrific actors and story-tellers (especially the powerful presence of Patrice Johnson Chevannes.) I enjoyed the rustic boot-stomping and body-slapping percussion music they made. I enjoyed moments of their choreography, but much of the time I felt the movement interludes were superfluous and distracted from the music.

    1. The last two comments before mine are really the most on-target. Others complain about the length and repetitive and/or vague qualities in the music and especially the drama, but they understand neither post-minimalist music nor folklore. Having studied both, allow me my soap box. First, Julia Wolfe is a great composer and Bang render her work marvelously. Sure, themes repeat and build and echo--that's part of the genre and part of the "fun" if you get into it--and it can also be quite powerful ("Mickey pick slate," anyone?--that part of *Anthracite Fields* gave me chills and brought me to tears!). Remarkably, too--and showing great insight and instincts on the part of the dramatist and whole authorial team--some of the same aspects apply to folklore: it really does come down to us in pieces; there really is no definitive version; we really do have to read it within the "cracks"--the overlaps and gaps among the extant bits--to get anything like the "full" or "true" picture. And it really does interface with real history--which really is (mainly) about the struggles of working people doing physical labor, which really don't unfold in a single, coherent narrative line. In other words, I think the idea of partnering with this musical piece a dramatic work that presents a pastiche of "fragments" taken from the themes of labor and racism and history (Reconstruction and railway construction) was a brilliant and appropriate one--a fitting complement to the vocal score--and that it was marvelously rendered by the ensemble, whom some of the other commentators on this page rightly complement for their *physical* acting (movement and body music) as well as for their dramatic delivery. So Kudos to all involved--please keep trying / try again to all detractors (it's not the most immediately accessible of musical/narrative/dramatic styles!)--and one final point: some others rightly mentioned, but I have to add my agreement: Patrice Johnson Chevannes--thank you, you are marvelous, you brought me to tears in *Tamburlaine* and you did it again--you act from the depths of your soul, and your artistry is a privilege for us to witness!

  2. Thrilling production. The music was incredible and the dancing and exhaustive staging drove home the message of the story of man against machine. Patrice Johnson Chevannes was incredible (especially in a wonderful monologue written by Carl Hancock Rux). Bits of comedy helped the narrative, but overall, the production could have been about half an hour shorter and left the audience fully satisfied.

  3. Incredible performance that gives ones mind room for thought. Wish everyone could experience this.

  4. meh.... way too long, needs editing and less repetition.... more of the lively music rhythms you hear less than you want.

  5. An extremely poor representation of the John Henry story. Sorely in need of editing, this production comes off as a misguided revisionist parady of an American tale,

  6. Flashes of brilliance; terrific musicians. Two lead roles (John Henry and wife) absolutely wonderful. But very poorly edited. Was the problem that there were four contributing writers and therefore editing would have been awkward/uncomfortable? Could easily have edited out a half hour or more; repetition has its place but do we need to see the actors running interminably around the center set?

  7. I had the most intense reaction to this performance that I've had to anything in a long time, and I see many performances. I was frustrated, bored, even angry. The music had power and vitality, and so did the actors, but the staging was just static and awful and no part of the story was ever told coherently and I felt like a prisoner being subjected to the same repetitive text and useless movement in that center circle - the same thing over and over, and no relationship between the music and the events on stage. All the drama was empty and the actors just seemed exploited for nothing. I was so disappointed, and I was praying to be released from the theater.

  8. This piece is a work of art, and an incredibly powerful one. I only wish I could see it again. If you want to be spoon fed, this may not be for you. If you want to experience artists pushing boundaries, boldly, and are willing to bring yourself into the room and engage, well... wow. We brought our eight-year-old and she loved all 2 hours of it. Thank you!

  9. I loved this show. The text wasn't repetitive (at least not until the end). The first mini-play introduced us to the folklore of John Henry and the many versions of his story. The second small play was a monologue (delivered brilliantly by Patrice Johnson Chevannes) about an old woman who recounts how difficult the Reconstruction Era was for newly emancipated African Americans in the South, especially women who had to give birth without medical care or work for little to no money and raise their children under poor sanitary conditions, and as a result experienced high infant mortality rates. The third play was a modern conversation between John Henry and his wife during his incarceration. He asks her to move on with her life and raise their children without a father. Only the fourth play seemed to reiterate what had already been said in the first, that John Henry died as a result of breathing coal dust (and it was much too long. On that I agree). As for the actors running in a circle for what seemed like forever, I thought it was meant to simulate, in a theatrical way, the endlessness and brutality of hard labor. Absolutely genius. My husband and our friends talked about the play for hours over dinner. Some of you must have very short attention spans.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.