A surplus of musically talented actors combined with a desire to address increased Islamophobia in New York City leads the creation of a choir dedicated to finding the harmonies amongst Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
The primary motivation behind ActorCor and its creation in 2008 was the increasing anti-Muslim sentiment growing in the U.S. and especially in New York. Darren Lougee, the founder and conductor, was continuously surprised by the acceptance of Islamophobia. So much that he started to think that maybe he was missing something. It was his personal interest in trying to understand Islam that started the idea of putting together a program that infused theology from the three Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
One day Darren was at a typical musical theater audition, with 200 other singing actors, listening from outside the door. Without exception every singer at the audition was amazingly good, and he thought, “What a waste! All these talented young singers competing for maybe 6 positions, assuming the show had not already been cast!” He wondered what a choir of actors would be like and realized that this may be something really new and exciting. So ActorCor came out of this desire to conduct, to investigate the commonality of religion and spread some love to begin erasing the hate that had been building up in New York since September 2001.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Darren advertised in the classified section of “Backstage” and found himself with over 30 actors interested in his idea. He also had the enthusiasm and assistance of Composer Robinson McClellan. Robinson had worked with Donald Nally, the founder and director of The Crossing, a choir committed to commissioning and performing new choral music. Both Robinson and Darren were now committed to making something happen. The two of them put together the first version of the Say Yes! program.
ActorCor’s repertoire includes a mix of original music and new arrangements of existing pieces. For example Robinson found a translation of Hafiz, a famous early Persian poet, made by Ralph Waldo Emerson, an equally famous American writer. With Iran and the U.S. in conflict, he loved the idea of two poets, who were both formative to the national psyche of their respective nations, coming together like that. He then composed a piece which was mostly his own, but which included as a refrain a Sufi chant from the 19ths century which he found in a book about Hafiz.
The Music Master by Jeff Olmsted, text by Rumi:
Robinson’s most recent piece for ActorCor, Ostorlab, was completely original music, a setting of another famous Persian poet, Rumi, but this time in the original language. With the help of the translator Zahra Partovi and a special tuning system used in Persian traditional music, Robinson overcame the challenge of composing in a language and genre that are not his own.
Another piece, “Tri-faith Celebration”, is three other pieces mashed together: Christian, Jewish (Hasidic) and Muslim (Sufi). The original concept was Darren’s: he had an Anglican choral/organ piece in mind, and wanted to add elements from the other Abrahamic faiths. Darren used the original piece for the beginning and end, unaltered, and basically took out the middle and replaced it with songs from the other traditions, which had a similar melody, so it would sound smooth.
To increase their repertoire, ActorCor has a competition every year for new choral music that focuses on interfaith connection and peace. They try to encourage composers to write choral music that uses or mixes sacred texts from the three Abrahamic faiths. Choosing the music for their concerts is based on building an interfaith experience that celebrates the commonality of Christians, Muslims and Jews. One year they commissioned from Palestinian Composer Akram Haddad a setting of Psalm 121 (I lift mine eyes until the hills) in Arabic.
At this point ActorCor has done six versions of Say Yes!, a concert that celebrates the commonality of Islam, Judaism and Christianity and over 25 performances in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. They have a roster of about 70 actors and singers, and usually have about 30 singing at any given concert. On April 4th, 2013, the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, ActorCor did a very special version of Say Yes! in Brooklyn. They had a guest choir from the United Arab Emirates. The all-Muslim choir of men and women performed music from the Sufi tradition as well as joining ActorCor in several group numbers, including “We Shall Overcome.” It was a wonderful experience and quite moving for the Muslims in the audience to see and hear Muslim men and women singing sacred music together. Actually, it was quite moving for everyone in the audience and especially for the ActorCor singers.
We Shall Overcome with Soloist Danielle Chambers: