Conceived in part by Bill T. Jones, this multigenre work at the Perelman Performing Arts Center is interested in homegrown prejudice, but lacks dramatic focus.
Entering the Perelman Performing Arts Center’s auditorium, you quickly notice detritus that looks as if it has been blown in from a bewildering protest: A few small American flags here, color copies of a Greetings From Hollywood postcard there, wrinkled fliers everywhere. Some of them are imprinted with the text of the Second Amendment, others a rallying cry: “We fight fascists.” Among the most eye-catching is an ad for N.R.A. memberships, with its promise of “$5,000 Accidental Death and Dismemberment insurance.”
But what about intentional deaths? “Watch Night,” a new multigenre hybrid show, is interested in those, specifically the ones fueled by homegrown prejudice.
Inspired, or maybe wrenched into existence, by the massacres at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, this Perelman center commission was conceived by the choreographer and director Bill T. Jones and the poet and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, with a score by Tamar-kali.
Joseph often draws directly from the news in his art: His collaboration with the composer Carlos Simon, “brea(d)th,” which the Minnesota Orchestra premiered in May, was informed by the life and death of George Floyd. He wrote the libretto for “We Shall Not Be Moved” (2017), an opera inspired by the police bombing in 1985 of a Philadelphia house occupied by Black activists, with an artistic team that included Jones and Lauren Whitehead, the “Watch Night” dramaturg. Unfortunately, those experiences have not helped focus this new production.
The central figure in “Watch Night” is an ambitious Black journalist, Josh (Brandon Michael Nase). “American rage is my beat,” he says early on, “and man, business is boomin.’” Josh, who sounds almost grimly excited by the professional opportunities this anger could create, dreams of finding a story “ready-made for Hollywood.”
He maintains that stance of studied disaffection in the face of a pair of shootings: one in a Black church, orchestrated by a man nicknamed the Wolf (Kevin Csolak), the other a copycat rampage in a synagogue. Josh, whose mother is Jewish, finds himself involved in conversations about the issues roiling American society at large, and confronts people including his brother, Saul (Arri Lawton Simon).
Much of the show consists of characters debating — sometimes amicably, often less so — contrasting philosophies of life and belief: Saul and Josh, who straddle two heritages; the church’s pastor (the excellent baritone Sola Fadiran) and the synagogue’s rabbi (Brian Golub). But the creative team struggles to musicalize and dramatize arguments about, say, forgiveness and repentance.
Despite its weighty themes, “Watch Night” is strangely bereft of affecting tension. It would seem impossible that a plot point involving a congregant from the church, Shayla (Danyel Fulton), serving as a guard in the prison holding the Wolf could be unaffecting, but it is.
What is most surprising about the production, besides its overreliance on perfunctory ensemble dance, is the awkwardness of Jones’s staging. The Perelman’s adaptable space has been configured so that the audience is split in two, with the halves facing each other. Whenever the music is in an operatic mode, the text is projected along the sides of the stage at an angle that makes it difficult to read while watching the actors. Select sentences and words are also projected to maximize their impact, but the two screens’ visual potential still feels underused. (Adam Rigg did the scenic design; Lucy Mackinnon handled the projections.)
The performers often walk up and down the aisles amid the audience, an immersive move that makes them hard to see if they are in your section — a sizable portion of viewers will have a tough time catching a crucial scene toward the end. How can we expect focus from a piece that struggles to exert control over our gaze?
Then again, it often feels as if this indecision is embedded in the very fabric of “Watch Night.” In his program note, Joseph says that the new show “doesn’t code ‘switch,’ it code ‘surfs’” among disciplines and styles. There again it comes up short, including musically.
The bassist Corey Schutzer and his often jazzy lines drive the eight-piece orchestra led by Adam Rothenberg. But Tamar-kali — whose “Sea Island Symphony: Red Rice, Cotton and Indigo” premiered this summer at Lincoln Center — mostly sticks to a limited palette. (One of the few times your ears may prick up is when she nods to Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much.”) The score feels as if it were paddling in place, never catching, let alone boldly surfing a wave that might transport us.
Through Nov. 18 at the Perelman Performing Arts Center, Manhattan; pacnyc.org. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.