History of Black cowboys on stage Feb. 25 in Alma

History of Black cowboys on stage Feb. 25 in Alma

It might not come as such a surprise in the River Valley, where students learn about Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River. But the creators of “Cross That River” say few people know that “40% of the cowboys on the great American cattle trails were Black, and after the Civil War they helped provide much needed food to the depleted East.”

Allan Harris knows, even though he grew up in Brooklyn a century later.

“My summers were spent at my grandfather’s 400-acre farm in western Pennsylvania where I learned to ride horses and work with livestock,” says Harris, who is widely acclaimed as a vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and band leader. “When I went home in the fall, the nuns in my school asked me to write an essay about how I spent my summer.

“When they read that I rode horses and worked with black cowboys, they said I was lying, that there was no such thing as a black cowboy,” he remembers. “That stayed with me through my life, and I finally decided to write a western that depicted the life of a cowboy of color in the 1800s — which is based on stories I knew from my grandfather and my father.”

“Cross That River” follows Blue, a run-away slave who escapes to Texas to become one of America’s first Black cowboys. Performed as a song cycle — concert style — the production made its debut at the first Country Music Festival at the Kennedy Center in 2006 and was recorded for the distance learning program to reach children in schools across America. In 2008, it received a Chamber Music America grant to take it to 12 schools in Harlem, and in 2009 it won critical acclaim at the New York Musical Theater Festival. On Feb. 25, it’s on stage for one night only at the Skokos Performing Arts Center in Alma.

Harris started writing the songs that became “Cross That River” in 2002 in his Harlem apartment, but after recording and releasing the album, he and his wife began writing the musical together. He is a three-time winner of the New York Nightlife Award for “Outstanding Jazz Vocalist,” a DownBeat “Rising Star Jazz Vocalist,” two time winner of the Hot House Jazz Magazine’s Best Male Jazz Vocalist and was recently awarded third place in the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition.

But The New York Times lauds Harris not only for his “protean” vocal talent but for “a heroic vision of American history and the African-American contribution,” and Broadway World says “the show has a riveting story along with a fabulous score [making it] an extraordinary theatrical experience.”

“It’s perfect to be on tour now because our country is struggling with its history, and this history is a source of pride for all of us,” says Pat Harris, the show’s producer, co-writer of the book for the musical and Allan Harris’ wife. “We have all learned about ex-slaves who went North, but very little has been written about the men and women of color who ventured West and worked the important cattle drives for 25 years or more. Right now, the Black youth of our country need to know that they are part of a great tradition of being an American cowboy. And all Americans need to know that the original cowboys were Black men.

“We hope [audiences] feel inspired and proud of how we came together as Americans to rebuild our country,” Pat Harris continues. “This show is driven by the idea that we are all Americans, and we need to remember that so we don’t destroy the great country that we’ve created together. The final song in the show is called ‘I Do Believe,’ and it is a defining moment because it reminds audiences that we have much to be proud of in our shared heritage — and that is needed now more than ever.”


‘Cross That River’

WHEN — 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25

WHERE — Skokos Performing Arts Center, 103 E. Main St. in Alma

COST — $25-$38

INFO — skokospac.org

Categories: Family Friendly