An oratorio written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer inspired a collaboration between a theatre company and an experimental music collective to transform the piece into a dramatic musical theatre production. Experience the result of this creative union with the performance of “Steel Hammer” at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 17.

Presented by the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech, the performance will be held in the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre, located within the Moss Arts Center’s Street and Davis Performance Hall at 190 Alumni Mall. 

“Steel Hammer” is an artistic journey inspired by composer Julia Wolfe’s love of the Appalachian music tradition and director Anne Bogart’s boundless fascination with the human impulse to tell stories. This collaboration combines the music and oral traditions of Appalachia with text from four African-American playwrights and lyrics culled from more than 200 versions of the legendary John Henry ballad.

Based on hearsay, recollection, and tall tales, “Steel Hammer” traces the trajectory of a powerful story passed from one generation to the next. It explores the subject of human vs. machine, the cost of hard labor on body and soul, and the function of stories in society. Music merges with the spoken word, woven together by movement, dance, and percussion.

Together, the Bang on a Can All-Stars and SITI Company use wooden bones, mountain dulcimer, step dancing, and more to evoke the rich instrumental colors of Appalachia for this classic American legend.

John Henry was a railroad worker who, equipped with only a steel-driving hammer, raced in a competition against a powerful steam engine to tunnel through a mountain. He won the race and became a folk hero, but lost his life in the process. This poignant tale of human struggle survived in ballads, songs, and poetry, as it traveled from one person to the next through time and across many territories.

Wolfe used the extreme variations of the story, combining the contradictory versions of the ballad into a new whole that embodies the simultaneous diverse paths the story has taken.

The performance weaves together Wolfe’s music composition, the music of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the fluency of four playwrights, and the shared sensibilities of SITI Company’s actors and designers.

The Center for the Arts is hosting pre- and post-performance events in the Moss Arts Cube in conjunction with “Steel Hammer.” Prior to the Nov. 17 performance at 6:30 p.m., Gena E. Chandler-Smith, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, will discuss the unique intersections of the story of John Henry — myth and man, past of present — with a variety of cultural expressions in her talk, “American Vernaculars: The Legend of John Henry.”  

Immediate following the performance, interact with members of Bang on a Can All-Stars and SITI Company in a question-and-answer discussion with “Steel Hammer” artists.

Both events will be held in the Moss Arts Center Cube and are free and open to the public. Capacity is limited for the pre-performance talk and registration is recommended. Call the Moss Arts Center’s box office at 540-231-5300 or register online.

Other engagement events with the artists include:

  • Students in Virginia Tech’s University Honors program will participate in a dialogue with members of SITI Company and Bang on a Can All-Stars about the production of “Steel Hammer.”
  • Members of SITI Company will lead students in the School of Performing Arts’ Theatre Arts program in a workshop on “Viewpoints,” a technique for movement and theatrical composition developed by Mary Overlie and later adapted by Tina Landau and Anne Bogart, artistic director of SITI Company.
  • Musicians from Bang on a Can All-Stars will speak with past collaborator and associate professor of directing Robert McGrath and his students from the School of Performing Arts.

Composer Wolfe is the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her oratorio, “Anthracite Fields,” based on life in the Pennsylvania coal mines. Wolfe draws inspiration from folk, classical, and rock genres, bringing a modern sensibility to each, while simultaneously tearing down the walls between them. Wolfe is professor of music composition at the Steinhardt School at New York University. She is co-founder and artistic director of the new music collective Bang on a Can.

Wolfe, along with composers Michael Gordon and David Lang, founded Bang on a Can in 1987. A performing arts organization that has been creating a community dedicated to innovative music, Bang on a Can leads a broad range of year-round international activities. Bang on a Can All-Stars is a six-member amplified ensemble recognized worldwide for their dynamic live performances and recordings of music that freely cross the boundaries between classical, jazz, rock, world, and experimental music.

Founded by Anne Bogart, Tadashi Suzuki, and a group of likeminded artists, SITI Company began as an agreement to redefine and revitalize contemporary theatre in the United States through an emphasis on international cultural exchange, training, and collaboration. The company is known nationally and internationally as a top-level artistic collective that generates groundbreaking theatre. Offering performances from a varied repertoire and workshops in unique theatre training, SITI Company is dedicated to establishing long-lasting relationships with theatre presenters and their communities around the world.


Tickets are $25-55 for general public and $10 for students and youth 18 years old and under. Tickets can be purchased online; at the Moss Arts Center's box office, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday; or by calling 540-231-5300 during box office hours.

Parking is available in the North End Parking Garage on Turner Street. Virginia Tech faculty and staff possessing a valid Virginia Tech parking permit can enter and exit the garage free of charge. Limited street parking is also available. Parking on Alumni Mall is free on weekdays after 5 p.m. and on weekends.

If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, please contact Kacy McAllister at 540-231-5300 or email during regular business hours at least 10 business days prior to the event.



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