A world-premiere production shepherded by area stage talents Daniel Haughey and Michael Callahan, Aaron Power! The Musical – running March 17 through 20 at the Center for Living Arts' East Studio in Rock Island – boasts a perfectly timely premise for a show opening on St. Patrick's Day, as its narrative concerns a young man who travels abroad to uncover the secrets of his Irish ancestry. Complicating matters for our protagonist, and likely to make them even more fascinating for the musical's patrons, is that the young man in question is Native American.
An epic dramatic quest featuring original Irish-American and Native-American music and songs, Aaron Power! sends its hero Aaron Thorn (played, in his theatre debut, by Chicagoan Ira Francisco) from his Navajo home in Shiprock, New Mexico, to Ireland after Aaron discovers his Celtic roots. While overseas, Aaron meets the members of a cutting-edge Celtic rock band, and being a musician himself, tags along with the ensemble as they tour the country's territories – or rather, flee from them, as one of the bandmates is suspected of committing an act of terrorism in Belfast. But Aaron's musical journey also proves to be an ancestral one, particularly after he learns that his mysterious grandfather is a “Taoiseach” (pronounced teé-sheck): a political chief who is simultaneously one of the most loved and most loathed individuals in modern Irish times.
Set circa 2010, the year that Haughey (who directed the staging) and Callahan (who composed the score) began working on the show in earnest, Aaron Power! consequently follows its protagonist on a journey toward musical and cultural discovery. But even though Aaron is Native American and Haughey is not, the show's director says that the material does feature elements of biography dating back 42 years.
“I was never that much into my Irish ancestry,” says Haughey. But during an informal 1980 family reunion in Tennessee, his older brother presented their father with a series of research papers and asked, “'Dad, did you know you're practically Irish royalty?'” After doing some digging on their family history, Haughey's sibling discovered that their father's second cousin Charles Haughey “was a gun-runner for the IRA and one of the most feared politicians, and yet he revolutionized Ireland, and people in the republic love him – if they're Catholic. That intrigued me.” Haughey was further intrigued some 38 years later after he and one of his sisters traveled to Ireland together and learned even more about Charles and his role in Irish history. “I said, 'Somebody needs to make a drama out of this guy someday.'”
Two years later, in 2010, Haughey proposed to Callahan the idea of collaborating on a stage musical. The men attended the same church, and Callahan agreed to the plan – but Haughey still wasn't entirely sure of what the project would be about. “But then,” says Haughey, “I just thought, 'Why don't I use that ancestral story that I've been thinking about? Because there's real drama in this character.'”
After tinkering with the idea of making the musical's script clearly autobiographical, Haughey admits to getting “cold feet” over the notion. He did, however, have another plan, asking himself, “'What if I could find another persona that would be highly unexpected, and have him trace his roots back to this man?'” And for Haughey, another persona came quickly to mind.
“I spent five years living and working and teaching and doing theatre next to the largest Navajo reservation in the United States,” he says, referring to the Navajo reservation in Shiprock. “I had several acting students of mixed ancestry or mixed race, and they all had interesting stories.” Plus, in comparing the cultures of Native Americans and the Irish, Haughey and Callahan “found all these commonalities. They both use terms like 'chiefs' and 'clans.' Their instruments tend to gravitate toward the flute, the drum … . Some of the sounds are hauntingly similar. And part of it is because Michael found that convergence.”
Says Callahan of his and Haughey's collaboration in the project's early days, “It went back and forth between working on the narrative and working on the songs. Dan would sometimes give me a vague idea of what would be happening in a scene, and sometimes a few specifics about it, or even a whole scenario, and I would throw together musical ideas at that point.”
“But where Mike really seemed to be intrigued,” says Haughey with a laugh, “was when I said, 'Hey, what do you think about Celtic punk rock?'”
Once the idea of Aaron Thorn joining a Celtic-rock outfit was introduced, says Callahan, “It's became a really liberating writing exercise. The main thing, in composing, was to go with the first impulse. Just go with it and plow ahead. Because when you're writing for kids who are forming a band, you're not gonna have this really giant, polished thing with classical-influence subtleties throughout. So as a composer, you're trying to get into the head-space of 'What are we doing?'
“So much of it,” Callahan continues, “is like using acting skills, where you become a different character. You just sit down, and ask, 'What is this character feeling? Where are they coming from?' And then you simply let it flow. 'What is it like to be young and in a pub and Irish? Let's throw down a ballad in five minutes that sounds like the writer is in an Irish pub somewhere while writing it, taking maybe 1,000-year-old Celtic imagery and throwing it together with modern ideas.'
“And the idea that I consistently used to hammer,” he says, “was I wanted to have the performers essentially turn themselves into a band. That was a big thing for me. Not to necessarily lock down all the music, but to give them lead sheets as a guide. Basically saying, 'You guys are part of this creation. You fill it in.”
After working on the project off and on for some nine years, Haughey and Callahan held a public workshop of Aaron Power! at Moline's Black Box Theatre in October of 2019, and after numerous additional revisions to the script and score (Haughey says, “I think the prologue and one song are the same from the workshop version”), Haughey, Callahan, and director of music Karl Bodenbender were ready to begin casting for an area production last fall. That's when they first met Ira Francisco.
The Aaron Power! audition came to Francisco's attention through his career counselor Mark LaRoque, who works in the Chicago office of the California Indian Manpower Consortium (CIMC). Though he was working odd jobs in the city and had never been in a play before, the 21-year-old Francisco says, “I'm very comfortable in front of many people, because I am a powwow dancer, and having all those eyes on me ever since I was little has really prepared me for presentations and stuff like this.” He thought performing in a musical sounded like a challenging and enjoyable opportunity, and his father agreed to drive with him to the Rock Island audition. “So we punched in the directions, “ Francisco says with a laugh, “and I learned it was three hours away. Wow.”
“So I said, 'Never mind. I don't need to do this.' But my dad said, 'No no no no … go pack your stuff! We're gonna hop in the car and drive out there.'” Upon arriving at the Center for Living Arts, says Francisco, “They handed me a script to read, and Dan said, 'You are a Native American who is biracial.' And I'm like, 'Yeah. You got that right.' And he said, “No, no – your character is biracial.' 'Oh-h-h.'”
Francisco was asked to read from the script and then sing a rock song – no titles of which came to mind. “I don't know any rock songs,” says Francisco. “But I thought, 'I know Native American music. I know powwow songs. That's what my main strength is. So I pulled out my hand drum and just started singing.” After some more time spent working music with Bodenbender, the Aaron Power! team asked Francisco to return in an hour and they'd give him their decision. Francisco and his father drove around the Quad Cities for an hour. “And then when I came back,” Francisco says, “They said, 'Okay, it's not gonna be easy, but want to hire you. You're going to be our lead actor.'” (Happily for everyone involved, through an arrangement with CIMC, Francisco is able to keep working full-time while rehearsing; he doesn't have to commute to and from Chicago.)
With the cast also composed of Ted Brown, Sarah Goodall, Jennifer Cook Gregory, Robert Gregory, Austin Griffin, Rabekah Stone, Emmalynn Tully, and Jake Wirz – nearly all of whom also sing and play instruments in Aaron Power!'s Celtic band – Francisco says that at first, “We were all kind of nervous with each other. I mean, we didn't know each other. But as time slowly progressed, we became friends. And definitely working with Karl and the music was about building the team. It was the meat-and-potatoes of rehearsal for the first few weeks, because there was a lot of work to be done with music, as far as who's playing what instrument, who's singing what chord … . But we're always trying something new. We made the joke, 'We're putting together this music – we are this garage band right now!'”
And as Haughey quickly attests, Francisco being Native American – specifically Navajo – was a blessing for their production. “So much of the show is about culture shock,” says Francisco. “Currently, I'm the only Native American – the only minority – working on this. The rest of the cast is all white. And from a Western standpoint, [the script] made sense. But some of the lines that Aaron said wouldn't make sense form a Native perspective. So there are things I've brought up with Dan, and we've worked through them to make it a more authentic experience.”
“There's a real sense of truth about it now,” says Haughey. “Like the word 'shimá,'” which is pronounced shih-muh and means "mother.'" “Do we have to have Aaron say 'mother'? No. Because this character is Navajo. And if he's having some metaphysical conversation with his shimá, it wouldn't be 'mother.' It's things like that that are taking this story to the next level." He adds, "To see how [Francisco] shouldered all this responsibility, and be a team player, and make friends, it's almost sweeping all of us. His attitude, I think, helps the team a lot. He's a leader."
Regarding the eventual production, Francisco says, “I'd like the audience to come up with their own meanings, but I'd definitely like them to see the differences in characters, and maybe have people think more about sensitive racial issues. It's a different experience being a minority in America, especially when you come from a minority of the minority. Ireland is probably one of the last places you'd expect a Native to be. And seeing that culture shock might get people to re-think a few things about themselves.”
Callahan says, “I always hope they go away humming something.” With a laugh, he adds, “That's sort of greedy and selfish, but it is cool when somebody else picks up on something you wrote. And I'm always interested in the audience having thoughts about a work and discussing it afterward. Positive or negative. If people are really negative about it, at least that's a reaction. Any time I can get a big reaction, I'm like, 'Yes!' If they feel anything, that's great.”
As for Haughey, he says, “I would like if people can take away escape. We live in a time that's so dis-unified – nationally, state-wide, globally – and I think we're all ready to escape. But we need peace, too, and this is a show about family, ancestry, and unity. Yeah, it's a musical, so people are gonna get a happier ending than the beginning was. But maybe, when this is all said and done, people will also see a ray of hope for unity.”
Aaron Power! The Musical runs at the Center for Living Arts' East Studio (2008 Fourth Avenue, Rock Island IL) March 17 through 20, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Admission is “Pay What It's Worth” ticket pricing, and more information and reservations are available by e-mailing email@example.com and visiting DanAct3.com.