If 18th-century France had a rock star, it was Joseph Bologne, a Black musician and swordsman whose epic life is being encapsulated by Curio Theatre in a walk-through show, A Symphony for Saint-Georges, opening Friday in the company’s performance space on Baltimore Avenue.

With devastating good looks and supreme skill at everything he tried, Bologne, also known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges, dominated sword fights, opera houses, and insurrections on multiple continents. He wrote numerous operas, symphonies, and violin concertos — the latter employing techniques that influenced Mozart.

What could easily be a four-hour movie is funneled into what amounts to a 35-minute multimedia tour of Bologne’s life, presented in an installation whose format was dictated by pandemic circumstances.

When performers tell the story, they appear on video rather than live. Audiences will be in groups of four walking through in timed, socially-distanced increments.

The installation, hatched by Curio co-artistic director Paul Kuhn and choreographer/dancer Adja Samandoulgou, begins with a winding walkway through the sanctuary of the landmark Calvary United Methodist Church building — with its glorious Tiffany windows — that is also home to several religious congregations.

A water fountain/wishing well at the entrance refers to Bologne’s birth in Guadeloupe where his mother was an enslaved Senegalese woman and his father, a white aristocrat, who encouraged an education that included fencing and European music.

Visitors pass by a giant, severed violin neck, and the production later leads to a small, violin-shaped room that also suggests a cell where Bologne was imprisoned during the French Revolution. Elsewhere, mannequins engage in prerecorded Paris Opera gossip.

Fog effects waft from the church’s organ pipes. Videos feature Philadelphia actor Lindsay Smiling as Bologne, both in a monologue and in displays of swordsmanship, as well as violinist Randall Goosby playing Bologne’s music.

Fitting the breadth of Bologne’s remarkable life into a half-hour tour “was hard. It was really hard,” said playwright/Curio co-artistic director Rich Bradford, whose writing for the monologue attempts to sum up Bologne’s breakthroughs and betrayals. “For all of his achievements, he had a lot of setbacks. I admire his resilience and perseverance … and when you think that [the story] is over, it’s not.”

His sex appeal was a deceptive advantage that has confounded other charismatic Black artists through the ages. “People like to look at us,” said Bradford, “but when it’s time to claim what is ours, it gets rejected.” Bologne’s appointment to run the Paris Opera was defeated because some employees refused to take orders from a man with dark skin.

With so much video, the company worked with a Screen Actors Guild contract rather than the usual Actors’ Equity. While Curio cofounder Kuhn is accustomed to blocking out multiple theater scenes in a short period of time, shooting video was grueling. “We didn’t understand [filming],” he said. " We had to do three scenes in one day. It was an exhausting 14 hours. We didn’t know.”

Yet there was plenty of luck. Raising the installation’s $30,000 budget was surprisingly easy. Up-and-coming violinist Goosby happened to be in town working with Opera Philadelphia and knew Bologne’s music.

Fight director Ian Rose knew of Bologne’s sword technique, and having held stage-fight classes at local theaters, knew the ideal actor to play Bologne: “I said Lindsay Smiling is your Saint-Georges. He’s a rocking sword fighter. He has gravitas.”

And he needed it for the long monologue Bradford wrote (and rewrote) for him, dealing with, among other things, the horror of Bologne’s baby with a married woman being intentionally starved to death. Smiling says his subtext is as much 21st century as 18th — “Being part of a community but not fully embraced by it,” he said, “and trying to find a sense of belonging and connection to people.”

But it’s the 18th-century context that suggests what molded Bologne, whose fencing mentor, for example, had a dual existence as a swordsman and a novelist/poet, just as Bologne also became a composer. That was how gentlemen of that period lived.

The fact that Bologne was the best on all fronts is what leaves one incredulous that he has little posthumous recognition — until recently.

In January, his music was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra as part of its Digital Stage series, and his one surviving opera, The Anonymous Lover, was staged online in November by the Los Angeles Opera. His String Quartet No. 5 Op. 1 was played on a concert streamed Sunday from New York’s 92nd Street Y, slotting in comfortably next to Beethoven.

Of course all of these recent Bologne performances would be best enjoyed live — including what’s on video at the Curio installation. But pandemic circumstances offer at least one advantage: no stage fright for any of the performers.

“Yeah!” said Smiling. “It’s all done!”


A Symphony for Saint-Georges

The show runs March 19 through April 18, at Curio Theatre, 4740 Baltimore Ave., with a Thurs.-Sun. schedule most weeks. Time slots are as early as 1 p.m. and as late as 8:30 p.m., and vary by day. Suggested donation: $20 for adults and $10 for students and children. Information: 215-921-8243 or curiotheatre.org