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Study Guide | Theater

Steel Hammer

The Story

Steel Hammer is a collaborative music-theater piece inspired by the Appalachian legend of John Henry, an epically strong African-American railroad worker who out-hammered a steam-powered engine and lost his life in the process. This unique collaboration created by Bang on a Can composer Julia Wolfe, director Anne Bogart, and four of today’s most prominent African-American playwrights is brought to life by SITI Company performers and live musicians from Bang on a Can. With its soaring vocalizations, Appalachian-inspired instrumentation, introspective text, and eclectic mix of dance styles that range from clog dancing to step, Steel Hammer becomes the perfect platform for engaging in an inquiry about the relevance of storytelling in our society. In addition, this deconstructed, reconstructed, and re-imagined John Henry adaptation engages us in a dialogue with the past, present, and future on the issues of race, culture, and human dignity.

Steel Hammer began as an oratorio composed by Bang on a Can composer Julia Wolfe that was inspired by her love for the music and lore of Appalachia and over 200 versions of the folk song “John Henry.” After completing the score, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, and upon the suggestion of BAM Executive Producer Joe Melillo, Wolfe approached director Anne Bogart in 2013 to see if she would be interested in collaborating on a music-theater piece. Bogart was thrilled with the idea and began working independently with her SITI Company members, including choreographer Barney O’Hanlon, to explore multidisciplinary ways to integrate SITI Company’s signature physical approach to storytelling with Wolfe’s preexisting score. In addition, the SITI Company commissioned four African-American playwrights—Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor—to write 10-minute plays that told their own version of the John Henry story.

Les Waters, the Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, invited SITI Company to premiere the theatrical version at the Humana Festival in the spring of 2014 with recorded music. In preparation, the playwrights and SITI Company performers rehearsed and held workshops in both New York and Louisville where they fine-tuned the physical vocabulary for the show with dance and movement sessions, discussed and unpacked thematic elements with each of the playwrights, and immersed themselves in Wolfe’s score with daily music sessions.

In the culminating piece, six performers compete to tell their version of the John Henry story using movement, multiple styles of dance, tableau, distinct characterizations, and spoken word, recreating the tale in a dynamic and compellingly theatrical way.

The dramatized stage production of Steel Hammer combining SITI Company and Bang on a Can All Stars was developed and premiered at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in September 2015 and was commissioned by the Krannert Center and by BAM for the 2015 Next Wave Festival.

“BAM Education study guides are supported by the Frederick Loewe Foundation.”