Oratorio evokes tears of pride, recognition, hope
By Marley Shebala
As I interviewed Michelle Emerson and Maureen Ford, I lost my composure and almost started crying.
It was an embarrassing moment, taking place just as the cheers and applause from a 10-minute standing ovation for "Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio" subsided.
I wanted to reach the two women before the 2,387-seat symphony hall began to empty because if I didn't catch them, I would never know if the gesture one made with her right hand in the final moments of the performance was to brush away a tear.
And then I found myself near tears, from their glowing review of the work we had just seen, but also from the emotions "Enemy Slayer" awoke in me.
I had never been to the Phoenix Symphony or any other symphony performance. I didn't know what an oratorio was until I researched it upon learning that a new work based on a Navajo central character was in production, and that respected Navajo poet Laura Tohe was writing the libretto, or lyrics, for it.
I'm a writer and familiar with the work of many other writers. But the words Tohe used in "Enemy Slayer" are so beautiful, even as she describes the horrors of war, that I was wordless with awe.
"I smoked myself in the mad smoke of war. Mothers' hopes wrapped in bloodied rags. The children lay like broken toys spilled on the streets. Red rags. Limbs and dreams rearranged by war."
Tohe carefully and reverently wove into her libretto bits and pieces of our early history, an epic time of monsters, gods and goddesses, good and evil, and heroes.
"Enemy Slayer" was inspired by the story of two of our heroes, the twins Monster Slayer and Child of Water. They went to war against the monsters that threatened our people, to protect us and make our home safe.
But after they had killed all the monsters and returned home, they started having nightmares and smelling the blood of the monsters and hearing their screams.
The twins didn't want to be around people. They lost their appetites. Sometimes they were depressed and other times, they were angry and violent.
The people could see the twins were ill - nowadays it carries the name "post traumatic stress disorder" - and prayed to the Holy Ones for a ceremony to heal them.
Thus was born the 'Anaa'jí (Enemy Way), one of our most sacred ceremonies and one that is still in frequent use to cleanse our warriors returning from today's wars.
In October, when I interviewed the creators of "Enemy Slayer" - composer Mark Grey, Tohe, and photographer Deborah O'Grady - they said in separate interviews that they wanted the oratorio to be a bridge between the Navajo and non-Navajo worlds.
They had been working on the oratorio for more than a year and Grey and O'Grady had learned that we, the Navajo people, have understood for eons that war injures everyone it touches, whether or not those injuries show.
And we had a way to heal someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Enemy Slayer" is not about war, it's about the people who fought the wars, as O'Grady expressed it.
"It's about the soul of the soldiers, men and women all over the world. It's a universal story. It's a story that has been going on for all of history. We see veterans on the street. They're homeless people, drug abusers, very broken people that we haven't learned how to bring back in."
"And what's wonderful about this piece is the hope that it gives for healing. Everyone needs this blessing. They need to know it's possible. They don't need to imitate it. They need to find ways to do it for each and every individual," she said.
In "Enemy Slayer," Tohe is careful not to refer to 'Anaa'jí or any its details - that would be sacrilegious - but instead writes about its essence, which is love, faith, hope and remembering who you are.
I didn't cry when I was interviewing Emerson and Ford. I did cry several times during the oratorio because although the music was very different from what I listen to, it told a story with which I am very familiar.
I have experienced it in my own family and heard it again and again from veterans, both Navajo and non-Navajo, who fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
As soloist Scott Hendricks and the choir sang the finale, tears slid down my cheeks because they sang about peace.
I pray for peace because I want my most precious gifts, my daughter and my grandchildren, to live in a world of peace and love.
Do I sound like a dreamer? Or do I sound like someone who loves her family and doesn't want any child, any grandchild, to ever suffer from the guilt, horror and perpetual fear that war inflicts? And the words that Hendricks and the choir sang - four times - for the finale were: "Hózho náhásdlíí' dooleel."
Let peace prevail.
Sidebar: Premier performance bridges cultures