A Powerful Tale of a Black Cowboy, ‘Cross That River,’ Conjures in Music the African-American Experience in the Old West
Allan Harris’s basic language is jazz, but the score is suffused with virtually every roots music genre that exists: blues, country, gospel, bluegrass, Tex-Mex — the one thing it does not sound like is a typical musical comedy score.
Allan Harris, composer, lyricist, co-librettist, guitarist, and star of 'Cross That River.' Carol Roegger
Cross That River: A Tale of the Black West’
Music and Lyrics by Allan Harris; Book by Allan & Pat Harris
59 E 59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
Through October 8, 2023.
In traditional African-American spirituals, crossing the river frequently means traversing the River of Jordan, a metaphor for transitioning out of this world and into the next. In other words, dying. In many such folk songs, death is presented as a release and a reward, the only way to escape the misery of slavery.
In Allan and Pat Harris’s musical, “Cross That River,” the act of crossing that river symbolizes a more life-affirming means of escape, not a passage into Heaven but rather an exodus from bondage into freedom, like the Hebrews through the parted sea and out of Egypt.
“Cross That River,” which is making its second run Off-Broadway at 59 East 59th, is most ostensibly about the life of a Black cowboy, and, wider than that, about the whole of the African American experience in the old West. Technically it’s a work of fiction — there is no direct real-life equivalent of “Blue,” the story’s hero, as played by Mr. Harris — but it uses the dramatic conceit to impart a larger truth.
The tale of “Cross That River” is told as a flashback; Blue tells tells his story, to the plains from the plantation, to a trio of youngsters, portrayed by three actor-singer-dancers who play multiple roles, Taylor Elise Jackson, Brooke Sterling, and, most prominently, Jeffery Lewis, as Young Blue. He tells them — and us — that this is a story that they’ve never heard before, and that’s certainly true.
Black cowboys played a prominent role in the actual West, but they’re excluded from the history books and even more so — with the exception of a pair of B-movies starring “The Bronze Buckaroo,” Herb Jeffries — in the romanticizing of the West by Hollywood.
Mr. Harris, at 67 has reached the approximate age that Blue is in the beginning and the ending of the story. He and his wife Pat have been working on this piece for over 20 years, and I’m pleased to have seen every incarnation: from a concert version at Joe’s Pub 20 in 2003, a performance at the Kennedy Center, productions all over the country, as well as a a semi-staged run at 59E59 in 2017.
Six years later, the work is now fully staged and directed by Reggie Life, with ample choreography, but still an intimate production in which the accompanying musicians, pianist Arcoiris Sandoval, bassist Paul Beaudry, and drummer-actor Norman Edwards, Jr. all play occasional speaking parts.
The great strength of “Cross That River” is the passion that Mr. Harris feels for the subject matter, and that permeates every moment of the show — particularly in the music, which is consistently outstanding. “Cross That River” is also an immigrant’s story, and as such, keenly reflects the melting pot of American music.
Mr. Harris’s basic language is jazz, but the score is suffused with virtually every roots music genre that exists: blues, country, gospel, bluegrass, Tex-Mex — the one thing it does not sound like is a typical musical comedy score. The inspiration here isn’t so much Oscar Hammerstein but Willie Nelson in some of his more elaborate story songs, such as on “Red-Headed Stranger,” or Marty Robbins on “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.”
The title song is essentially a spiritual in the tradition of Uncle Dave Macon’s “One More River to Cross” and “One More River” by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. The symbolism of the river as passage dates back to pre-Christian times, and when Young Blue and Mama Lila sing of the man who can ferry him and his horse across the river, one can’t help but think of Charon rowing souls across the river Styx.
“Cross that River” doesn’t spare any of the indignities of plantation life, lynchings, humiliations, and the entire dehumanizing institution of the slave economy. Yet the script shows us that there were also gracious white people, especially the master’s daughter as played by Ms. Sterling, the love of Blue’s life. Alas, what they once called an “interracial romance” does not end well.
Conversely, the West itself is glorified. It’s not as if racism didn’t exist beyond the Mississippi, but it was no longer the all-consuming fact of life, as it was in the antebellum South. “Horse and cattle don’t care what skin shade a person is, no sir!” As Blue says at the beginning of his narrative, “And that trail boss? He ain’t got time to be jawin’ about a person’s color. All he cares is that you got enough grit to stay in that saddle.”
The score is glorious: marches, waltzes, lively Nashville-style two-steps, even a Mexican-style bolero. If you can’t get to 59th Street before October 8, at least buy the album. The reach of “Cross That River” occasionally exceeds its grasp when it attempts to tell the story of every marginalized group in the west — which is to say, everybody but straight white men — Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, not to mention virtually all female Americans.
To successfully address all of that, the show would have to be an epic, but “River” is at its most powerful when focusing specifically on Blue’s story; to spread it out too thin would be to dilute its considerable power.
For all the hardships that Blue and his family endure, the message is re-affirming; it’s not only individuals who travel west to reinvent themselves, but rather, the West was where America itself came into its own, and more fully realized the ambitious dreams of the founding fathers.
“Cross That River” ends with a highly celebratory, unabashedly patriotic anthem that makes you want to stand up and salute. In any other show, this might seem merely sentimental, but in “Cross That River,” you feel like they’ve earned it. The river has been crossed.
Can I Get A Yeehaw!?
by ADAM WASSILCHALK | Sep 29, 2023 9:37 am
Posted to: Theater
CAROL ROSEGG PHOTO
Allan Harris in Cross That River.
Cross That River
59E59 Theaters Theater B
New York, NY
Through Oct. 8, 2023
Most folks probably wouldn’t be able to guess that a quarter of American cowboys were Black. As a Black man from Texas who opens all his emails with “Howdy,” I love talking about this rarely-acknowledged historical fact.
Cross That River – Allan & Pat Harris’ musical about Blue, a man who escaped slavery on a Louisiana plantation to become a cowboy in Texas -– does more than just talk about the history and legacy of Black cowboys in the United States. It sings and dances about them too.
Blending fact, fiction, and a beautiful, sweeping, multigenre score by Allan Harris, Cross That River is entertaining, educational, and above all, a toe-tapping musical journey through the life and adventures of Blue, who is played and narrated by Harris himself.
The story is told episodically, with each number centering around a different experience from Blue’s life, including his escape from the McLaughlin plantation, learning tricks of the cowboy trade from Mexican vaqueros, rising through the ranks and gaining notoriety as a skilled cowboy himself, falling in love with his wife, and reuniting with long-lost family.