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November 9, 2011 | Theatre,

Check out these films, books and music related to ANGEL REAPERS

By Corrie Glanville


Ken Burns’ The Shakers (2004)

Ken Burns, our preeminent documentarian of American history, crafts a detailed picture of the sect that referred to themselves as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but came to be labeled Shakers after their frenetic dancing. Living by their motto “hands to work, hearts to God,” the Shakers created a community based on social and economic equality for men and women as well as pacifism. Of course, they also believed in celibacy so they were few Shakers left when Burns made this film in 1989—and even fewer today. The Shakers includes Burns signature voice-overs, interviews with historians, original photographs and on-location footage to create this compelling series of one of America’s most influential Utopian movements.

As It Is In Heaven by Beth Lincks (2002)

Actor/director Beth Lincks writing under the name Arlene Hutton conceived the musical As It Is in Heaven after an inspirational visit to the Pleasant Hills Shaker Village in Kentucky. Set in the 1830s, a peaceful Shaker community is disquieted when a young woman claims to have had an angelic vision; the elders attempt to contain the joyful hysteria spreading among the young people that threatens to upend tradition. Praised by critics, it ran at the off-Broadway Arclight Theatre in 2002 when the Herald called it a “thought provoking piece, the message being that often we need not look as far as heaven to see angels here on earth.”

Borrowed Light (2004)

A collaboration of live music and dance created by the Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen and the Boston Camerata was named one of the best dance performances of the decade by the Village Voice when it played at Jacob’s Pillow in 2007. Based on Shaker hymns and dances, you can watch a clip online of what the Boston Globe called a “strikingly original evocation of communal devotion unlike anything this reviewer has experienced.”


Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

Turn-of-the-century writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman is more often celebrated for her short story The Yellow Wallpaper, which became a best seller and feminist classic. Lesser known is her singular science fiction novel, Herland, which describes an all-female utopian society discovered by male explorers. The Herlanders live free from war and oppression and have found a way to reproduce asexually much to the dismay of their visitors. This strange and fascinating story offers a view of gender as a social construct that is shockingly contemporary.

Chosen Land, Chosen Faith: The Untold Story of America’s 21st Century Shakers by Jeannine Lauber (2009)

Emmy-winning journalist Jeannine Lauber was granted unprecedented access to the Shaker community in New Gloucester, ME over a fifteen-year-period where she explored the daily and spiritual lives of its inhabits. What emerges is a rare portrait that dismantles many of the myths about the Shakers and their faith. Lauber interlaces quotations, interviews and glorious photographs in this impeccably researched coffee table book.

The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times by Ilyan Woo (2010)

Even American history buffs may not have heard of Eunice Chapman, who was the first woman in the United States to be granted a divorce and custody of her children in the absence of adultery. Author Ilyan Woo unfolds the dramatic circumstances of this historic case that inspired both sympathy and outrage for Eunice Chapman who came home in 1814 to find her husband had taken their three children to live among the Shakers. Defying all social convention, Chapman took her case to the courts, mounting a campaign against her husband, the Shakers and the law itself. According to Library Journal “neglected history comes alive in this meticulously researched and compelling story of one tenacious woman.”


Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland (1944)

Originally commissioned as a ballet by legendary modern dancer Martha Graham, “Appalachian Spring” has remained a popular orchestral suite in part for its incorporation of the dulcet Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts.” Even though many felt Copland perfectly captured the gentle beauty of the Appalachians in his soaring score, oddly enough the composer had no idea what the title of the piece would be when he was writing it, only that it would be about a Pioneer celebration of spring set in the 1800s.  Critic Richard Freed noted that it was Copland’s use of the Shaker song that created “the atmosphere of simple wonder, humility and faith that is the essence of this work.”

“Shaker Loops” by John Adams (1978)

Minimalist composer John Adams grew up not far from the defunct Shaker colony in Canterbury, NH, which served as one of the inspirations for his popular string orchestral work.  He named the work “Shaker Loops” in part because of the “shaking” of the strings as they ripple between notes and the ecstatic dancing of the Shakers. Adams has said that it was the vision of these devout souls caught up in the frenzy of movement that was the “dynamic, almost electrically charged element, so out of place in the orderly mechanistic universe of Minimalism, gave the music its raison d’être and ultimately led to the full realization of the piece.”

“Fireplace” by R.E.M. (1987)

While fans are still mourning their recent break up after 30 years together, R.E.M. will always be known as one the most influential, distinctive bands in alternative rock. With carefully crafted lyrics and wistful vocals, R.E.M. often commented on American life—though few may know they incorporated words from a speech by Mother Ann Lee, the leader of the Shakers, in their song “Fireplace”:   “Hang up your chairs to better sweep/Clear the floor to dance/Shake the rug into the fireplace.”  “Fireplace” can be found on their 1987 album Document, which was their first album to sell over a million copies and provoked Rolling Stone to pronounce R.E.M. “America’s best Rock & Roll Band.”

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