Duration: 65 min.
James .. .. .. .. baritone
His Mother .. .. .. soprano
Ruth .. .. .. mezzo-soprano
Chorus of Mixed Voices
Saxophone (soprano and alto)
Percussion (one player)
Glockenspiel, Vibraphone, Triangle, Drum Set
Prologue: Imagine what it would feel like
Mother’s Lullaby: I will protect you
Scene 1. James’ Aria: Noise— I love the city
Scene 2. Sound & Light
Scene 3. I draw a map
Scene 4. Don’t do that
Scene 5. [you put] a cool cloth on my forehead
Scene 6. You will not bury your dead here
Scene 7a. There’s a woman named Ruth
Scene 7b. Ruth’s Aria: I will give him rest
Epilogue: Can you forgive?
james (book of ruth) is a dramatic oratorio written by composer Steven Serpa and librettist Zac Kline. It presents the story of James, an HIV+ man, and the losses he suffers because of the disease. James loses the man he loves to the physical ravages of HIV/AIDS, while he is abandoned by his family because of fear and stigma.
The Prologue shares background for the story and sets a mood of introspection and empathy. It is revealed that James was diagnosed HIV+, and with that, the chorus and soloists ask the audience to “imagine what it would feel like” to be abandoned as a result of that diagnosis. Imagine waking up one morning or imagine that while you slept, with no warning, everyone left you. A remembrance of protected sleep and comfort closes out the prologue with James’ mother singing a lullaby to him in childhood, promising to protect him and to be there for him in darkness and in loneliness.
In Scenes 1 and 2, James feels alone, out of sync, and overwhelmed. He hates the city he lives in, though he puts up a good front and tells people he loves it. That changes when he meets someone new who, with a smile and touch, cuts through the pretense and makes a true connection with James. This new man introduces James to a new community that will accept him for who he is, HIV status and all, and the two men fall in love. The deepening love of their relationship is shared in Scene 3, but amid the happiness and intimacy though, the first hints of failing health are felt.
James’ partner has been getting sicker, and James doesn’t know what to do. In Scene 4, he seeks the support and advice of his mother. He is immediately confronted with the admonishment and judgment of her religious community. She wants James to return home to her and the redemption and healing available through faith. She tells him, he must leave his partner and their life of sin behind, but James won’t leave his partner. They love each other and his partner needs him. James can’t understand why his mother refuses him and his partner. After her final rejection, James finds a renewed sense of belonging and comfort in the life that he and his partner are building together.
Through Scenes 5 and 6, James’ partner gets sicker. James takes care of his partner’s daily needs, their own individual medical routines, and he tries his best to maintain a hopeful outlook for them both in the face of HIV. His partner dies, and James feels lonelier than ever. He feels guilt for surviving with a disease that took his lover and an overwhelming responsibility to find a burial place and create a final rest for the man he has lost.
In his loneliness, James meets a stranger, a woman named Ruth. She offers to help shoulder this burden, the responsibility of burying his partner and the guilt he feels in surviving him. James resists her, insisting that he is alone in this obligation and alone again in life, but Ruth reminds him that he has a loving, supportive community that is there for him. As Scene 7 ends, she promises to be there for him and to be there with him as he faces the future without his partner and a life with HIV.
In the Epilogue, James regards himself in a mirror. He sees the same man he has always been, even if some others see him differently and push him away because of the disease he has. The disease has not changed him, though his experiences have marked his face with signs of love and of loss. He is left confronting the questions: Can he forgive? Can he show love to those who have refused him love? How can he rebuild his life after so much loss and rejection?