Jay Rosenstein, UI journalism professor, profiles the singing group Amasong in a new documentary. The group is known as "Champaign-Urbana's pemier lesbian/feminist chorus.'
Photo by Bill Wiegand
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When then-UI music student Kristina Boerger set out to organize a lesbian/feminist choral ensemble in 1991, she drew women in with a hand-lettered poster announcing that the choir was open to any woman who could sing. Or, as Amasong member Raeann Dossett recalls in a new film about the choir, the sign indicated that “if you can carry a tune in a bucket, you’re welcome.”
More than a decade later, the collective voices of Amasong – self-described as “Champaign-Urbana’s premier lesbian/feminist chorus” – have hit more high notes than Boerger could ever have imagined possible. Amasong’s evolution – from an amateur ensemble with shared sexual and political identities to an award-winning choir and community staple – is captured in UI journalism professor Jay Rosenstein’s documentary “The Amasong Chorus: Singing Out.”
Rosenstein said the 53-minute film, which he produced, directed, wrote and edited, has played to “packed and sold-out” crowds – and even received a standing ovation – at lesbian and gay film festivals in Australia, Italy and San Francisco. Amasong’s loyal hometown following will finally get the chance to see the film when it receives its local premier at 9 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Beckman Institute auditorium. The event, part of the campus’s yearlong Brown v. Board Jubilee Commemoration, is free and open to the public.
The film – a co-production of WILL-TV, produced in association with the Independent Television Service, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – will be broadcast locally on WILL-TV at 9 p.m. Nov. 4 and 7. The documentary also will be broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service on June 8 as part of the Independent Lens series.
Unlike past documentaries Rosenstein has produced, such as “In Whose Honor?”, which explored the Chief Illiniwek controversy at Illinois, the Amasong film was created with the sole goal of profiling the ensemble and Boerger, its dynamic founder-director. “It’s not meant to be persuasive,” Rosenstein said; instead, it “mirrors the way Amasong has been integrated into the community.”
The journalism professor said he got the idea to profile the group after attending their biannual performances. “I had been going to see them for a few years, and I liked them. But I kept thinking, ‘there’s a lot more here than meets the eye.’ I also realized that Kristina had an interesting background, and thought I could tell a compelling story.”
As it turned out, Rosenstein said, the film explores more than one story line. “There is the rags-to-riches story,” he said, which “shows how Amasong went from being this amateur group to a national-award-winning ensemble.” In 1998, the ensemble won a GLAMA award from the Gay and Lesbian American Music Association for its recording “The Water is Sweet Over Here.” The award is informally regarded as the gay and lesbian equivalent of the Grammy award. In 2000, Amasong picked up two more GLAMA awards.
The other storyline that runs through the documentary, Rosenstein said, “is the way in which the group becomes a mainstream, acceptable part of the community. “It’s about how social justice gets done. Before you know it, they were accepted. It’s a subtle thing and hard to show because it happens gradually, over time.”
Nonetheless, Rosenstein was motivated by the challenge of trying to show “how their skill as musicians could help transcend some prejudices.” Under Boerger’s enthusiastic, yet tireless and intensely professional direction, he said, “Amasong became too good to pigeonhole as this lesbian group, and they had the courage not to hide that.” Their collective courage, he added, “came from Kristina. That was the part that was non-negotiable for her – that the community come to her on her terms.”
“I think she’s an amazing woman,” Rosenstein said. “She has incredible drive, focus and on top of that, she’s a musical genius.”
Boerger, who earned a doctorate in choral conducting from the UI School of Music while directing Amasong, now lives in New York, where she sings in a choir, conducts and teaches at Barnard College.