We didn’t expect much of a crowd last Saturday when we drove to the Carpenter Center for the performance of “First Person: Seeing America.” It was only a one-night event, after all; the weather was hot and it was smack dab in the middle of the July 4 weekend.

    Never mind that Neal Conan (NPR’s award-winning journalist) was one of the headliners, we figured that almost everyone would be at the beach, out of town, or celebrating with friends in someone’s back yard.

    Imagine our surprise to find three-fourths of CPAC’s huge auditorium filled with people who traveled from near and far to attend this “Pre-Independence Day Premiere.” Not only were they anxious to see the host of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” in person, they were curious about the rest of this special celebration of our nation’s history.

    According to the billing, Conan would share the stage with Lily Knight (an acclaimed actor in movies, television and theater) and the multi-talented Ensemble Galilei, who redefined the boundaries of chamber music.

    But wait, there’s still more. More than 100 vintage photographs from the Metropolitan Museum of Art were all cued up, ready to accompany writings by American authors that would be delivered by Conan and Knight. In addition, the Ensemble Galilei was scheduled to perform on stage as an integral part of the program by providing music to each reading.

    Intrigued by such an enticing description, we made plans to go and we’re glad we did. Along with almost everyone in the attentive audience, we were captivated for two hours. “First Person: Seeing America was not just solid entertainment, it was provocative, soulful, informative and inspiring.

    When the house lights went down, the stage was dramatically bare except for spotlights on Conan and Knight on the left and the musicians on the right — with a huge screen in the middle for projection of the Met’s photographs.

    Setting the tone from the start was Knight’s heart-felt delivery of the “Navajo Prayer.” A plaintive plea to the Great Spirit that acknowledges the dark storms of life, it asked to be restored after the harsh journey and to be surrounded by beauty.

    The prayer was followed by poignant readings that recall both hard times and survival. Delivered alternately by Conan and Knight, they covered daily life in our country from the early days of Westward expansion through interaction with the Indians, the Civil War, the Dust Bowl and The Great Depression, up to two World Wars.

    Using excerpts from a cross-section of American writers (Frederick Douglass, Jim Harrison, Studs Terkel, James Agee, Stanley Kunitz and Chief Seattle), the readings illustrated the strength, diversity, endurance, bravery and resilience of Americans. In fact, Knight’s spellbinding delivery of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address gave it new meaning.

    Accompanying each reading were fabulous black and white photographs by famous photographers that visualized the period. Among them were Walker Evan’s haunting portraits from the Depression and Edward Curtis’s pictorial history of Native Americans; plus iconic imagery by Ansel Adams, Edward Stieglitz, Thomas Eakins and Dorthea Lang.

    But the icing on the cake, the thing that brought the house down, was the music. With Hanneke Cassel and Ryan McKasson on fiddles, Sue Richards on harp, Kathleen Keane on pipes, Jackie Moran on percussion, and Carolyn Anderson Surrick on viola da gamba, the Ensemble Galilei sent the applause through the ceiling.

    In short, magic was created on the Carpenter Stage last Saturday when the audience found renewed respect for our country after “Seeing America” from a “First Person” perspective. For future CPAC productions, go on line at www.CarpenterArts.org.

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