I love what you stand for, but I hate the way you lie.
to save our soul your secrets need to die.
I still love you. God, I still love you.
Look me in the eye. Tell me where you’ve been.
— lyrics from “Ghost Train” in A More Perfect Union by Rona Siddiqui
After watching A More Perfect Union several times, what I would like to do is channel the spirit of my beloved Aunt Mikki as she prepares her turnip greens for the pot and say, just as she might: “Rona?!! Alright, girl! See??! You’re just showing off now.” But I have a Western education. All I can bring myself to say is: A More Perfect Union is a thrilling and joyous accomplishment, dazzlingly illustrated and breathtakingly performed. Siddiqui describes this work as an EP. And, indeed, it may be more recognizable to you as a set of three music videos, linked by a theme. Regardless of what you call it, it’s worth watching several times.
I delighted in the structure of this work. In what amounts to a triptych that portrays what it has been like living through the globally broadcast collapse of the hope of the post-Enlightenment Western world at the beginning of the 21st century, Sidddiqui explores her relationship to the American Dream/American Nightmare dynamic that Malcolm X incisively articulated and that was on brazen display through Donald Trump’s presidency and its pandemic residue. She imagines this dynamic as a troubled “romantic” relationship, laid out in three songs: each song giving voice to a different stage of that relationship. “Perfect Us,” the first song, is a portrait of puppy love and high school adolescence: an enactment of willing self-delusion and being in love with love. Next, “Ghost Train” takes us through the betrayal — what used to be called abandonment and what these days is termed “ghosting” — the missing-in-action existence of the beloved. In “Your Blanket” we are wrapped in the embrace of a baby blanket as we grieve the collapse of the desired but duplicitous relationship and acknowledge our need for self-comfort, self-care, self appreciation, recovery, and honesty. The songs are interspersed with voices of people whose experiences echo this cycle. These voices turn A More Perfect Union into a kind of illuminated manuscript.
Rona Siddiqui makes songwriting seem as though it’s as easy as rolling down a hill. The lyrics fit the mind and tongue as though you were just remembering them from something you said to your best friend yesterday. And her melodies often remind you of something you used to make up and sing to yourself when you were just a child. Her collaborators in this project have three very different ways of staging the songs that matched the words and music symbiotically each time, resulting in surprising emotional and intellectual payoffs. Vocalist Kuhoo Verna performs all three songs, displaying a flexibility and versatility that ranges from a Broadway style that is more overtly informed by an Aframerican presence, to hyper-dramatic musings that verge on the operatic.
In “Perfect Us,” Video Director/Designer Doug Fitch and Video Editor Animator Tommy Nguyen use green screen to immerse singer-actor Kuhoo Verna in the trappings of American commercial abundance and excess for the setting in which she engages in her romance. Our protagonist enters the kind of landscape that is reminiscent of the Judy Garland Oz only with updated technology. Her path is carpeted with neon-orange poppy fields and lilies, floating statues of liberty, stacks of Coors beer, Hellman’s mayonnaise, and Hershey’s chocolate bars. This song is a perfect evocation of “Motown: The Sound of Young America” (with some suggestions of the movie version of Grease). The high school angst of love is celebrated and indulged in, accompanied by the manufactured and manipulated distraction and consumerism that values Coca-Cola over clean water, and encourages the wrapping of oneself in the American flag over genuinely shared citizenship. None of this is real and somebody knows. But nobody is breaking this illusion. Our protagonist sings: “Promise me you’ll be true forever.” And, more ominously, she continues: “’Cause in this moment I know I’d die for you.”
“Ghost Train” (Video Director/Designer, Raja Feather Kelley) is a devastating scene/song in which the lies of the relationship are laid bare if not confronted. In contrast to the green screen of “Perfect Us,” “Ghost Train” is made up of hundreds of snippets of film, edited together, from popular Hollywood romances and melodramas (Pride and Prejudice, Waiting to Exhale, Phantom of the Opera, Halle Berry as Storm, etc.), documentaries of civilians in baptisms and soldiers on patrol, wading through streams of tropical water, indigenous guardians of the water, filmed dance performances, and Claymation. These are moments of betrayal, rage, and both authentic and performative rapture, all of it presided over by the billowing American flag on a hill. While the vocalist pleads, “I love what you stand for. But I hate the way you lie. To save my soul your secrets need to die. I still love you. Look me in the eye tell me where you’ve been.” In other words, are we going to own up to the truths of the 1619 Project? Or, nah.
In “Your Blanket” (Video Director/Designer, Em Goldman), we float above what looks like a child’s counterpane landscape on which are drawn events in a life filled with assurance, joy, hope, and soft pastel colors. The world as you want it is contained by and in this bedspread that is rumpled beneath what look like clouds suspended in a place where they will never actually release rain. The comfort here has familiar images. But it is not a naïve, nor desperately blind, comfort. The singer sings: “I promise you I’ll always have your back: once we bury all our lies.” The final notes of this song summon from our memories the words of the Irving Berlin song America, the Beautiful, the part that goes (sing it with me!): “from sea to shining sea.” And with this cadence, A More Perfect Union pulls all of us into a reckoning with our complicity with the betrayal of this relationship called America and our responsibility for what happens next.
Running Time: Approximately 17 minutes.
A More Perfect Union by Rona Siddiqui is the final installment in Arena Riffs, a three-part, commissioned original musical series that is a project of Arena Stage. Arena Riffs are free and open to the public to watch at arenastage.org.
Rona Siddiqui Writer/Composer
Kuhoo Verna Singer
Kuhoo Verna Girl in “Perfect Us”
Brandon Espinoza Tom
Jen Anaya Anna
Sherz Aletaha Safia
Jonathan Raviv Ravi
Shakina Nayfack Grace
Doug Fitch Video Director/Designer
Tommy Nguyen Video Editor Animator
Raja Feather Kelly Video Director/Designer
Em Goldman Illustrator/Video Creator
Michael Croiter Producer
Rona Siddiqui Producer
Rona Siddiqui Orchestrator
Mixed by Michael Croiter/Tyler Hartman
Mastered by Michael Fossenkemmper
Keyboards Rona Siddiqui
Drums Elena Bonomo
Bass Rob Jost
Guitar Justin Rothberg
Cello Susan Mandel
Violin/Viola Tomoko Akaboshi
Tuba Randy Andos
Trombone Joe Fiedler
Trumpet/Flugelhorn Tony Kadleck
Tenor/Bari Sax Kristy Norter
Mixed at Yellow Sound Lab