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Skylight Music Theatre Presents "Forgotten Voices — Unearthing the Roots of American Music"

Celebrating the Contribution of Black Artists
Recorded Live in the Cabot Theatre
Free Streaming Juneteenth Day, June 19 through July 18, 2021

Milwaukee, Wis. (May 19, 2021) — In celebration of the contribution of Black artists, Skylight Music Theatre presents Forgotten Voices — Unearthing the Roots of American Music, June 19 – July 18, 2021. Directed and written by Sheri Williams Pannell and music directed and curated by Christie Chiles Twillie, the show honors the often-unknown artists whose work deeply influenced others who gained far more notoriety.

In a musical and theatrical journey, Forgotten Voices highlights how musical roots encompass harmonies and rhythms of West Africa, which then became Freedom Songs, Spirituals and Blues, and continued on through Ragtime, Dixieland, Country, Swing, BeBop, Jazz, Gospel, Rock n’ Roll and beyond.

Forgotten Voices will be performed and recorded on stage in Skylight’s Cabot Theatre in front of a small, invited audience following current safety protocols. It will be available online beginning Juneteenth Day, June 19 through July 18, 2021. Tickets are free, but registration is required and contributions are appreciated.

In Celebration of Juneteenth Day

Forgotten Voices came from our passion, knowledge, and desire to correct misinformation, especially when it comes to the African American experience and music,” said Pannell. “This show is a gift we are offering to the community for Juneteenth,” referring to the national holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who were enslaved.

The seeds for the show were planted in a meeting with Pannell, Twillie and Skylight Artistic Director Michael Unger to discuss a Skylight concert highlighting contributions of African Americans to American music. The conversation inspired Twillie to create something that would musically dig much deeper than anything any of them had seen or considered before.

Roots of Music from 1619 until Today

“I knew we had to go back in time to when they drug us off the slave ships and put us here,” said Twillie. She created a timeline document that started in 1619 and continued until present day highlighting the development of music and Africa’s influence on American popular music.

Pannell wrote a ten-part poem to bring the timeline to life, interwoven with music and performances by an ensemble of five actors and three musicians. 

“Audiences will experience the history of music from beautiful African village type songs to Freedom songs and Spirituals, to classical formal singing, into Blues, Swing, Rock and everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Heavy Metal and Disco. It will be clear that American music is Black music,” said Twillie.

To find historically accurate rhythms and songs, Twillie is working with Dr. Paschal Younge, an African music expert and master drummer. The music for Forgotten Voices will highlight how rock bands such AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, The Doors, Aerosmith, Metallica, Pearl Jam and Nirvana borrowed those rhythmic and melodic styles.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers to Jimi Hendrix

Some of the songs and artists represented in solos and medleys in Forgotten Voices include “Rags,” by Scott Joplin, “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” by Duke Ellington, “Strange Things are Happening Everyday,” by Sister Rosetta Tharp, “Johnny B. Good,” by Chuck Berry, as well as songs by Nina Simone, Etta James, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder, Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, The Supremes, The Temptations, Earth Wind & Fire and many more.

"So much of this music is whitewashed that I had to go back and listen to what was actually being played,” said Twillie. She then created her own music song charts to demonstrate the overlap of original forgotten voices and newer songs. Except for some basic western European elements, all the harmonies and rhythms came from Africa, she explained, adding, “This show is a way to celebrate and honor that.”

FORGOTTEN VOICES CREATIVE TEAM

Director - Sheri Williams Pannell
Music Director - Christie Chiles Twillie

FORGOTTEN VOICES CAST

Cecilia Davis, Shawn Holmes, Bill Jackson, Tasha McCoy, Kevin James Sievert

Creative Team Biographies

Sheri Williams Pannell (Director) is a Milwaukee hometown talent who has often performed and directed at Skylight. She is a stage director, playwright and artistic director at Bronzeville Arts Ensemble; artistic associate at First Stage; stage director/teaching artist at Black Arts MKE; and co-director of the drama ministry at Calvary Baptist Church. In 2017, the City of Milwaukee honored Pannell as an “Artist of the Year.” Pannell is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Peck School of the Arts. Graduate of Spelman College with an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Christie Chiles Twillie (Music Director) is a pianist, music director, conductor, vocal coach, sound designer and composer. At Skylight: Five Guys Named Moe (2019 Footlights Winner Best Musical Direction), Newsies, and The Gospel at Colonus. Compositional credits include: A Raisin in the Sun (Invictus), America 2.0 (Definition), Harrison River’s We Are Continuous (GEVA), Isaac’s Gomez’s The Way She Spoke (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre), The Niceties (Forward) and The Mountain Top (American Players). Twillie was a 2019 Rachel Rockwell Fierce Women Behind the Table Award for Music Direction by Porchlight Music Theatre. She earned a BTAA nomination for Best Music Direction (Yellowman) in 2018.

Michael Unger (Skylight Artistic Director) joined Skylight in fall, 2019 and has directed KidsWrites, virtual productions, and launched new works initiatives to bring to Skylight such famed songwriters as Paul Williams, Dennis DeYoung; and a festival of BIPOC writers. Unger is also the Producing Artistic Director of NewArts, started in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy. Previously, he was Associate Artistic Director of Off-Broadway’s York Theatre. He’s directed many benefit concerts, including for Sandy Hook and Parkland. Selected world premieres include The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Caligula, and A ROCKIN’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, featured in the documentary film, Midsummer in Newtown.

Cast Biographies

Cecilia Davis most recently appeared as a soloist in the Skylight Music Theatre/Milwaukee Opera Theatre production of Carmina Burana. Other roles on the Cabot stage include Olympia/Dr. Miracle in The Tales of Hoffmann, Clara in Porgy and Bess and the Les Misérables ensemble. Davis has appeared in a number of productions with Milwaukee Opera Theatre, and also performs in recitals through various local concert series.

Shawn Holmes has appeared in shows throughout Wisconsin, including Skylight Music Theatre, Florentine Opera, First Stage Children’s Theatre, Middleton Players Theatre, Black Arts MKE and Four Seasons Theatre. Favorite roles include Jacob in La Cage aux Folles (winner of Best Supporting Actor in a Musical - Footlights Awards) at Skylight and others include Coalhouse Walker Jr. from Ragtime (winner of Best Actor in a Musical - Broadway World), and Sebastian the Crab in Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

Bill Jackson has appeared at Skylight as Agwe and Papa Ge in Once on This Island and Fats Waller in Ain't Misbehavin'. Other Milwaukee area credits include Mr. M in My Children! My Africa! and Belize in Angels in America: Perestroika (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre), Chester Kimmich in Storefront Church (Windfall Theatre), Applegate in Damn Yankees and Leading Player in Pippin (Sunset Playhouse) and Henry in The Lion in Winter (Pride Theatre Company) at The Alchemist Theatre.

Tasha McCoy was seen at Skylight in The Gospel at Colonus (2020) and Crowns (2016). She has appeared on stages in Milwaukee theaters and venues as both an actress and vocalist for over 20 years. Her work in Antarctica, WI, Flyin' West and Black Nativity have established her as a seasoned actor in Milwaukee's diverse theater community.

Kevin James Sievert made his professional debut at Skylight Music Theatre in Hot Mikado (2017) as Pish Tush, and in the Ensemble of Urinetown as Robbie the Stockfish and as the production's Dance Captain. Sievert returned to Skylight in the 2018-2019 season as Little Moe in Five Guys Named Moe, where he received a nomination and became a finalist for the Footlights People's Choice Award for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Musical (Professional).

Box Office and Performance Information

Forgotten Voices — Unearthing the Roots of American Music will be available for streaming June 19 - July 18, 2021. Tickets are free, but contributions are appreciated. Reservations are required and can be made at www.skylightmusictheatre.org/forgottenvoices. More information available by calling the Box Office at (414) 291-7800, Mon. – Fri. noon - 5 p.m., or anytime via email at tickets@skylightmusictheatre.org or online at www.skylightmusictheatre.org.

Health & Safety Protocols

Skylight Music Theatre follows all local government mandates. Working with area doctors and following CDC guidelines, Skylight has implemented health & safety protocols. Read more at www.skylightmusictheatre.org/about/health-and-safety-protocols.

About Skylight Music Theatre

Skylight Music Theatre marks its 61st season in 2020-2021. Skylight’s mission since 1959: To bring the full spectrum of music theatre works to a wide and diverse audience in celebration of the musical and theatrical arts and their reflection of the human condition. Skylight brings fresh approaches or interesting twists to music theatre works, creating meaningful connections, not only between the characters on stage but with the audience as well. Skylight’s home is the beautiful 350-seat Cabot Theatre, modeled after an 18th century French opera house.


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