Chenault, John 1952–
John Chenault 1952–
Librettist, poet, playwright
John Chenault began his career writing plays for community theater. But he was not content to limit his talents to only one venue. In a career that has proved especially varied, Chenault has used his talents to recognize and illuminate the talents of black artists and to focus on the issues of black life. Although he is probably best known for his two books of poetry and for the librettos that he has composed to accompany double bassist Frank Proto’s music, Chenault’s talents are extensive as he has proved adaptable to a diverse and interesting career.
Chenault was born on January 3, 1952, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was the oldest of four children born to John Walter Chenault and Mary Lenore Stonom Chenault. Chenault attended schools in Cincinnati, where he was raised. He entered kindergarten before he was five and developed into an avid reader. He often attended the same schools his father had attended and even occasionally had the same teachers, who had taught his father so many years earlier. But when he was 13, Chenault’s father died, and his mother was left alone to raise their four children. This was the same year that he began to write. The writing of poetry was a natural response to the stresses of his life, especially for a young man who enthusiastically read many books of poetry.
Although he loved to read, Chenault was beginning to have problems in school. Chenault told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that he never completed high school because he either quit or was expelled as he responded to the activism of the 1960s. Chenault explained that he “was a radical young kid caught up in the excitement of the black power and black arts movement of the period.” His mother, though, was determined that her children would stay in school and so she quickly sent her oldest son to stay with various relatives in other parts of the country. Chenault told CBB he was expelled from his last high school in California after a fight broke out on campus between “black students and two neo-nazi groups.” He had completed the ninth grade in 1966 and never returned to high school; instead, Chenault returned to Cincinnati to live.
By the time he was a teenager, Chenault had begun to acquire a reputation in the creative community of Cincinnati. He was an early member of the New Theater/Free Theater of Cincinnati, having become involved at its inception in 1967, when he was 15 years old. His participation with this theater took many forms, including that of stage tech, actor, playwright, and producer. Chenault told CBB that his involvement in this theater was a “blessing in disguise” that rescued him “from a dangerous flirtation with the streets.” He said that the theater taught him “about words, life, human relations, acting, drama, music, literature, cooperation, community.” This was, as he said, “the perfect learning environment.” Although he was no longer in school, he was “writing and studying with a passion.” His involvement with community theater only whetted his appetite to learn.
At a Glance…
Born on January 3, 1952, in Cincinnati, OH; married Gwendline Harper, 1976. Education: Union institute, BFA, 1977; University of Louisville, graduate studies, 2001–.
Career: New Theater/Free Theater of Cincinnati, OH, actor, playwright, producer, stage tech, 1967-; Black Arts Ensemble, performer, 1968-70; author, 1969-; University of Cincinnati, instructor of African and African-American studies, 1972; Sunship percussion group, founder and performer, 1973; Zamani Band, Washington, DC, founder and performer, 1977; Beacon College, instructor of African and African-American studies, 1977; Washington International College, executive dean, 1978-82; Sickle Cell Awareness Group, executive director, 1986-94; Applause, Cincinnati, OH, columnist, 1991-93; Artrage, London, columnist, 1992-93; WAIF Radio, Cincinnati, writer and co-producer, 1993; Liberettist, 1993-; Trane: Beyond the Blues, music designer, 2002.
Awards: National Conference of Christian and Jews Brotherhood Award for Young Men Grow Older, 1972. nominated for Emmy Award for Young Men Grow Older, 1972.
Addresses: Home —1370 South 6th Street, #1, Louisville, KY, 40208. School —The University of Louisville, MS02-11, 445 Strickler Hall, Louisville, KY, 40292.
Involvement with local theater also broadened his interest in literature, film, art, and music. During the late 1960s, and while still a teenager, Chenault studied African and Afro-Cuban percussion with Flash Ford and Alfred Smith. Then, for two years in the late 1960s, Chenault performed with the Black Arts Ensemble. During this time, he was also writing poetry. He self-published his first book of poems, Blue Blackness, in 1969, when he was 17 years old. Then in 1971, his first play, Blood Rituals, premiered at the Cincinnati Playhouse. That same year, Chenault conducted poetry workshops in the Cincinnati area, and by 1972, he was teaching in the Afro-American studies department at the University of Cincinnati. He had only a ninth grade education, but he was teaching students with far more formal education than he possessed.
Chenault continued to write, and in 1972, he wrote an award-winning television script, Young Men Grow Older, which was produced as a half-hour drama for WLW TV, an NBC affiliate in Cincinnati. Young Men Grow Older was nominated for an Emmy Award for community television and received a National Conference of Christian and Jews Brotherhood Award. But he was growing more interested in music, and in 1973, Chenault formed the percussion group Sunship, with whom he also performed as a percussionist. This early interest in poetry, jazz, and music performance would ultimately help to provide the basis for some of Chenault’s later work as a librettist.
In 1975 Chenault decided that he had to force himself back into school, but he knew he was not going to return to high school. Instead he enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Chenault ignored the school’s request that he complete the requirements for a G.E.D. Instead, he simply showed up for classes, received financial aid, and moved into student housing. Even at Antioch, learning was too structured for Chenault. But he did learn about a program called University Without Walls, which was designed for self-motivated students. This program would even recognize and award credit for prior experiences. Chenault told CBB that University Without Walls was perfect for him, and he quickly enrolled.
During his final year of college study, Chenault moved to Washington, D.C., where he formed the Zamani Band with several of his Antioch classmates. During this same period, Chenault also taught African and African-American studies at Beacon College in Washington, D.C., and he found time to marry Gwendline Harper. Then in 1977, Chenault earned a bachelor in fine arts in music and creative writing from the Union Institute, which administered the University Without Walls program. Having completed his college degree, Chenault was hired to direct a Department of Education program for disadvantaged students at Washington International College in 1978. Eventually he would become the executive dean at this facility, a position he held until his resignation in 1982.
By 1986 Chenault had returned to Cincinnati, where he began working for the Sickle Cell Awareness Group. As the executive director of this agency, Chenault conducted educational programs, developed budgets, and wrote grant proposals. But he also returned to his first love, community theater, both as a playwright and as a producer. He wrote Where Angels Piss, a two-act play that was never staged. He also functioned as co-producer for Paul Robeson, a two-act play, which was staged at the Taft Theater in 1990. Shortly thereafter, he published another book of poetry, The Invisible Man Returns in 1992 and began writing part-time for Applause, a Cincinnati magazine. Also in 1992, Chenault wrote Warren is Back in the World, another two-act play that was never staged, and he began writing articles for Artrage magazine, located in London.
In 1993 Chenault wrote and co-produced a monthly lecture series for a local all-volunteer community station, WAIF Radio, in Cincinnati. The lectures were titled “Human Evolution from an African Origin and Perspective.” In what would turn out to be the most significant professional move in Chenault’s career, he began, in 1993, what would become a nine-year collaboration with double bassist Frank Proto. A year earlier, Proto had been invited by the International Society of Bassists to compose a short piece for the solo double bass competition to be held in 1993. The death of Dizzy Gillepsie in January of 1993 would eventually provide the inspiration for the work. Initially, the piece was to be an instrumental score, but during the summer of 1993, Proto decided to add a libretto. This desire to add text would form the basis of a lengthy and successful partnership with Chenault. The two men combined their talents to compose Ode to A Giant, a 12-minute narrated musical tribute to Gillepsie, which premiered at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1993. In a review of Ode to A Giant, published on the Liben Music website, music critic David Hayes, of the British and International Bass Forum, wrote that “This is a significant addition to the bass repertory” that includes “lyrical and virtuosic flourishes.” Chenault’s addition of text brought a dramatic quality to Proto’s work that moved their compositions away from the traditional orchestra composition and turned them into dramatic theatrical pieces.
Also in 1993 Chenault and Proto were commissioned to create an orchestral composition in celebration of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s 100th Anniversary Season. The resulting composition, Ghost in Machine: An American Music Drama for Voice, Narrator and Orchestra, had its premier performance in April of 1995. This musical drama was narrated by actor Paul Winfield and included vocalist Cleo Laine and conductor Jesus Lopez-Cobos at its debut performance. Ghost in Machine would become the most notable of the seven compositions that Chenault and Proto created together. This work was a large-scale orchestra piece that addressed racial hatred, religious intolerance, and gender warfare. In the press release that accompanied the initial performance of their work, Chenault and Proto’s composition was described as “original and innovative in form,” while “provocative and controversial in content.” The opening segment introduced the two performers, who changed characters as the piece progressed. Chenault’s narrative examined America’s complicated relationship with the media. It has been the media, according to Chenault’s text, with its sometimes-confusing messages of violence, racism, and misogyny that has ultimately resulted in the manipulation of society. As the audience listened to the narrative and the musical accompaniment, they were transported on a journey not unlike that taken every time a television set has been turned on. This composition and its performance in Cincinnati were a part of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s “Multicultural Awareness” project. One goal of this project was to increase minority involvement in the symphony program, and Chenault’s involvement and the inclusion of racially-inspired issues helped to fulfill that mission.
Proto and Chenault collaborated on several other compositions following their triumph with Ghost in Machine. However, it was the success of this piece that directly inspired their next works. Chenault and Proto decided to write two new pieces that would honor Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. The result was their next creation, Mingus—Live In the Underworld, composed in 1995. Then in 1997, they composed More Than Miles. This newest composition, along with the 1993 Ode to a Giant and the 1995 Mingus—Live In the Underworld would be included on the Afro-American Fragments CD, which was released on the Red Mark CD Label in 1997. The Afro-American Fragments CD also featured a fourth composition by Proto that honored Langston Hughes, but to which Chenault had not contributed. Both Mingus—Live In the Underworld and More Than Miles featured actor Charles Holmond as the principle speaker.
Chenault wrote the 11-page booklet that was included as program notes for the Afro-American Fragments CD release. In discussing the CD, Chenault said that the purpose of Afro-American Fragments, was to “celebrate four of the most prolific, iconoclastic, controversial, and influential artists of this century: writer Langston Hughes, and musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis.” Chenault explained that these artists, whom he and Proto sought to honor, were African Americans “with aesthetic sensibilities deeply rooted in African tradition.” Describing his composition as “in the great tradition of ancestor worship,” effectively captured Chenault’s admiration for these men, as well as the great debt that he thought all artists had owed to those artists who have paved the way, making his own success easier.
In 1998 the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music commissioned Chenault and Proto to create a new piece for the Conservatory Jazz Ensemble. The result of this fourth collaboration was Yesterday’s News: A Satire for Jazz Band with Actors and Vocalist, which premiered on April 27, 1999. Chenault, writing the program notes for the premiere of Yesterday’s News. explained some of the ideas that went into the composition of this piece. He noted that, “Ever since human beings invented it, Time has remained a mystery to us as perplexing and enigmatic as life itself.” He explained that “Yesterday’s News, satirizes our inability to come to terms with our past and to recognize in the madness and mania of our present problems the fingerprints and footprints of history.” The essential idea of the piece was that Yesterday’s News becomes a “cautionary tale” that, if “read” correctly, could help Americans prevent the repetition of the scandal and corruption of the past.
In what would turn out to be a significant new work, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts commissioned Chenault and Proto to write a new jazz composition for performers Cleo Laine and the John Dankworth Group as part of the Kennedy Center’s Louis Armstrong Legacy Series and its Millennium Season. The commission was part of the First Decade Initiative, a ten-year project to celebrate the variety of arts being created in the United States. The Fools of Time premiered on February 11, 2000, and like their earlier collaborations, this new composition was acclaimed by the critics. In the program notes for the April of 2000 performance of The Fools of Times, Proto related that some of the ideas for the narrative came from Cleo Laine, who had wondered “what her grandchildren, who will live most of their lives in the new millennium, will think of their 20th century ancestors.” Laine took the time to write down her thoughts, and in response, Proto then gave Laine’s notes to Chenault, who “crafted the lyrics with Cleo’s thoughts in mind.” Proto then added the music, always keeping in mind Laine’s unique vocal talents. It is clear from reading Proto’s program notes how much effort and thought he and Chenault have put into their final work.
In a review of Fools of Time for the Washington Post, columnist Alan Greenblatt pointed out that Chenault and Proto’s composition had “won the warmest applause” of the three new compositions that premiered that evening. Such applause, said Greenblatt, was deserved for a piece that provided “the finest instrumental improvisations” of any of the evening’s performances. Laine and Dankworth took The Fools of Time on a European tour, where Chenault and Proto’s composition became the premier piece for the new Stables Auditorium in Great Britain on April 21, 2000 before beginning a world wide tour.
On September 14, 2000, My Name is Citizen Soldier was presented by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in New Orleans, as the opening piece of the orchestra’s 2000-01 season. My Name is Citizen Soldier, which was commissioned to commemorate the orchestra’s tenth anniversary, starred dramatic actor, Paul Winfield, in the lead role. Again collaborating with Proto, Chenault served as librettist for this piece, which was influenced by writer Stephen Ambrose’s book, Citizen Soldier. This composition, which was also commissioned by the American Composers Forum, as a part of this organization’s “Continental Harmony—New Music for the Millennium” project, also honored the opening of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, which was founded by Ambrose. Chenault and Proto’s composition was a tribute to American soldiers who fought in World War II, especially those who were in Normandy for the D-Day invasion.
In the program notes that accompanied the debut performance of My Name is Citizen Soldier, Chenault mentioned the challenges that he faced in composing this work. In particular, he mentioned the “massive confluence of media and memory” that complicated the process of composition. Chenault stated that he wanted the audience to “see a human face, the face of a veteran looking back in time” and to see D-Day as a “living legacy” that will establish a “new artistic beachhead.” The review of the debut performance noted the composition’s many strengths. In a review for the New Orleans Times Picayune, classical music critic Theodore P. Mahne suggested that Chenault and Proto’s composition “successfully transports the audience through time to the very battlefields of Europe.”
In My Name is Citizen Soldier, which was conducted by orchestra music director, Klauspeter Seibel, Chenault and Proto constructed a series of radio broadcasts to transport the orchestra back in time to the 1940s, where the musicians would become members of one of the big bands of the era. Mahne described the orchestra’s next transformation from nostalgia, to the sounds of war, to foreboding, as Hitler takes control at Nuremberg. The music even captures Roosevelt’s determination to enter the war. The real focus, however, is on Normandy. Mahne described the music and lyrics that the composers have constructed in this piece as evocative of “a deepening appreciation of the pain and heroic sacrifices made by these regular Joes.” According to critic Mahne, Chenault and Proto have depicted these soldiers with a “dignity and simple elegance,” which was enhanced by the reading of actor, Paul Winfield, who narrated at this performance.
In 2000, Chenault decided that he wanted to return to teaching, and this time he wanted to do it with a doctorate as his credentials. At the same time, he learned that novelist, Jan Carew, who lived in Louisville, Kentucky, was looking for someone to help him write his memoirs. Chenault told CBB that he leapt at the “opportunity to work and study” with Carew. He was accepted at the University of Louisville and received a research assistantship to work with Carew, while continuing work on his graduate degree.
Most recently, Chenault designed the music for Trane: Beyond the Blues, a play by Christine Rusch that was conceived as a tribute to John Coltrane. Chenault’s music design was used to trace Coltrane’s life through jazz compositions. The student production of this piece was staged at the Thrust Theater in Louisville, Kentucky, in March of 2002 as a production of the University of Louisville’s African-American Theater Program. But even while working on this production and assisting Carew with his memoirs, Chenault has continued to work on his thesis, and during the summer of 2003, he will receive a master of arts in Pan African studies. When his MA is completed, Chenault intends to begin work on a doctoral program in the Humanities.
In a career that has proved especially varied, Chenault has used his talents to focus his audiences’ attention on the talents of black artists and on the issues of black life. In an early review of Chenault’s first book of poetry, Blue Blackness, for Black World, Nikki Giovanni noted the need to “nurture” young emerging poets who have not yet found success. She need not have worried about Chenault’s future success. He has taken his interest in drama, poetry, and music, and combined them to create dramatic works that have entertained as they explored the issues that have most mattered to Chenault. He clearly proved during his creative journey that he was capable of nurturing his own future.
Young Men Grow Older, also co-produced television drama.
Trane: Beyond the Blues, music design for a play that premiered at the Thrust Theater in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 6, 2002.
Ode to A Giant: For Solo Double Bass and Narrator, with music by Frank Proto, published by Liben Music Publishers in Cincinnati, 1993.
Ghost in Machine: An American Music Drama for Voice, Narrator and Orchestra, with music by Frank Proto, premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, April 1995.
Mingus—Live In the Underworld, composed in 1995, for the Afro-American Fragments CD, with music by Frank Proto, 1997.
More Than Miles, composed in 1997 for the Afro-American Fragments CD, with music by Frank Proto, 1997.
Yesterday’s News: A Satire for Jazz Band with Actors and Vocalist, with music by Frank Proto, premiered at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, April 27, 1999.
The Fools of Time, with music by Frank Proto, premiered at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, February 11, 2000.
My Name is Citizen Soldier, with music by Frank Proto, premiered by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in New Orleans, September 14, 2000.
Blood Ritual, premiered at the Cincinnati Playhouse, Cincinnati, 1971.
Warren is Back in the World, 1993.
The Buckwheat Book of the Dead, 1995.
The X-periment, 1996.
Stolen Moments, 1997.
Blue Blackness, poetry, published by Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses, Inc., 1969.
The Invisible Man, poetry, published by Ventana Media, 1992.
Black World, August 1970, pp. 91-93.
Times Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), September 16, 2000, p. 21.
“Afro-American Fragments,” Luben Music Publishers, www.liben.com/9212.html.
“The Fools of Time,” Liben Music Publishers, www.liben.com/Reviews8.html (March 26, 2003).
“My Name is Citizen Soldier,” Liben Music Publishers, www.liben.com/pgmnotessoldier.html (March 26, 2003).
“Review: Afro-American Fragments,” Liben Music Publishers, www.liben.com/Reviews2.html (March 26, 2003).
“Yesterday’s News,” Liben Music Publishers, www.liben.com/Prgmnotes4.html (March 26, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Contemporary Black Biography on March 26, 2003, as well as from a curriculum vitae provided by John Chenault on March 26, 2003.
—Dr. Sheri Elaine Metzger
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