Was it enough just to be there?
The dilapidated Royal Theater, a curious but imposing shadow on the 1500 block of South Street, had its first concert audience in roughly 40 years on Wednesday as part of the Hidden City Festival, with music commissioned by Network for New Music for the occasion, though many (including me) would've shown up if only to watch the paint peel. What a place!
The movie and performance theater - opened in 1920 specifically for the African American community - closed in 1970 and is now the worse for wear. There's hope for rehabilitation under current owner Kenny Gamble, and indeed, the theater is in better shape than New York's New Amsterdam Theatre, literally propped up by two-by-fours in the mid-1990s, but now glorious.
Graffiti replaces much of the Royal's original decoration. But has decay ever been so entrancing? There's still much 1920s style, and your imagination fills in the rest, from the canopylike ceiling painting that radiates from the now-absent chandelier to the crumbling Greek pillars around the stage that once framed Bessie Smith. Craning your neck - though the required hard hat might fall off and hit your neighbor - you noticed layer upon layer of ornate molding.
Musically, the primary contribution came from Todd Reynolds, the New York composer whose Sounds for the New Royalty, written for the Wednesday and Thursday concerts, grew out of conversations with longtime local residents - he literally hung out at the barbershop. Though he considered incorporating interview quotes, Steve Reich/Scott Johnson style, what evolved was a winning medium-weight suitelike instrumental work written in modules, each with a minimalist-style ostinato over which something rhapsodic unfolded. Reynolds' brand of pulsating repetition eventually morphed into something bordering on punchy pop - all well-crafted, full of diverse scoring, never formulaic and consistently inventive.
Filmmaker Bill Morrison put together a flood of black-and-white images from the 1927 film The Scar of Shame, shot in Philadelphia for African American audiences. Laurie Olinder's more abstract color images seemed, at times, to grow out of the theater's bricks. However, the projections on irregular surface walls diluted what might've been quite powerful and nearly killed the concert's second half, the Anri Sala video The Long Sorrow. Its intermittently intelligible imagery included an on-screen saxophonist (shot in Berlin) seconded by a live improvisation from Jemeel Moondoc, who used every saxophone technique imaginable (even simultaneous vocalism).
Still, the evening felt a bit stunted overall, though (thanks to the building) not disappointing.