By Jim Higgins |

“The Ethiopian Ball” might be the most surprising thing a person could hear on Milwaukee airwaves this year. On Thursday, WMSE will premiere this 70-minute musical radio play about interracial romance and conflict in Charleston, S.C., circa 1782.

Historian Roger Beaumont found inspiration in mentions of a real “Ethiopian Ball” that featured British soldiers dancing with emancipated African women at a fancy dress event. He wrote the libretto and lyrics; his son Eric, known by many under his stage name Eric Blowtorch, composed and arranged the music.

Bass-baritone Jason McKinney sings a key role in “The Ethiopian Ball.”

Bass-baritone Jason McKinney sings a key role in “The Ethiopian Ball.”

The Beaumonts recruited an experienced cast of performers, including Skylight veterans Cynthia Cobb as Lucy Lou, the young woman at the heart of the story, and Jason McKinney as Gerald, a man she loves. Their orchestra includes pianist-harpsichordist Martha Galvin, trumpeter Eric Jacobson and French hornist Sarah Pulfer.

In keeping with the radio format, artist Vincent Maslowski has generated sound effects and incorporated ambient sounds. Engineer Shane Olivo recorded the performance by 25 singers, actors and musicians crisply and clearly; the recording has that intimate in-your-ear sound a radio broadcast should have. Ashley Jordan narrates the tale, which is presented as a story from the past that she tells fellow slaves.

Eric Beaumont believes his father’s approach to the story was inspired partly by the 1927 musical “Show Boat,” considered daring in its day for tackling prejudice and serious topics in a musical format. The Beaumonts created “The Ethiopian Ball” first as a play with music, but could not arrange a production for the large-cast work. “The companies that were interested were either too busy or too broke,” he said.

But a BBC announcement of a radio play contest led the Beaumonts to recast their production as a radio play. They didn’t win, but they now had a path forward, and soon enough an agreement with WMSE station manager Tom Crawford.

“My job was to take what my dad and I jokingly call lowbrow classical music and infuse it with the building blocks of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and gospel,” Eric Beaumont said with self-deprecation. “Think Me No Man” is built on two simple chords, but the classically trained McKinney delivers this anthem of personal dignity in a powerful bass voice. It would sound at home at a rally or memorial service today.

WMSE archives its broadcasts, so listeners who can’t catch the radio premiere live will be able to listen to it online. The Beaumonts are working to arrange broadcasts in other cities, too, Eric said.

Source: Journal Sentile
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