Evan Frierson ’13 has skill with sounds – in both language and music.
For the last few years, he’s worked as a Spanish language court interpreter and now – most surprisingly to him – he’s a percussionist in “American Utopia,” the Broadway show of Oscar winning-composer and frontman of Talking Heads David Byrne.
It’s not two careers you’d think would go hand in hand, but there’s a perfect explanation: Frierson’s a UNCG alumnus – multi-talented, resourceful, and prepared for opportunities.
While a student, he took as many courses as he could in the School of Music Jazz Studies program, working with Steve Haines and Thomas Taylor, from whom he learned a great deal about the daily work of succeeding in music. He also studied ethnomusicology with Dr. Gavin Douglas and completed a research project on different kinds of talking drums from West Africa.
But he loved languages, and ultimately decided to major in Spanish, focusing on Latin American culture and literature with mentorship from Dr. Veronica Grossi and Dr. Claudia Cabello-Hutt in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures.
His Spanish major led him back to music when he studied abroad in Uruguay.
“That would be the other way that my whole experience at UNCG shapes where I am now, musically,” he says.
While abroad and afterwards, Frierson explored the Uruguayan percussion and dance traditions, including candombe. In the Greensboro community as well, he met music mentors, such as Senegalese percussionist Mamadou Mbengue, and he credits the city’s cultural diversity as one reason he was able to engage in the type of music he wanted to play. After college, he kept his music going with groups such as the Super Yamba Band, a West African 70s-style group that toured each summer.
And with his Spanish degree in hand and remarkable skill in interpreting, he passed the federal court interpreter certification exam and worked at depositions, conferences, and eventually in the U.S. district court in El Paso.
“It has been eye-opening,” he says, about working in immigration court. He enjoys the intellectual challenge of breaking apart a message in one language to put it together in another, and he also values the opportunity to, as he says, “level the playing field,” or shrink the disadvantage of non-native speakers. “If you’re in a courtroom, and your life is hanging in the balance, you need to really fully understand everything that’s going on, or at least to have every opportunity to understand it in the same way that a native English speaker would understand it.”
In El Paso, Frierson had a practice room in his house. By day, he worked hard at the federal court, but in his downtime he practiced and made videos of himself playing the talking drum and other instruments. When he and his wife saw the talking drum player in the Spike Lee-directed H.B.O. presentation of “American Utopia,” he said, “I can do that,” and then sighed. “They’ll never find out about me.”
Surprise: two months later, the “American Utopia” musical director actually did find Frierson, through his Instagram videos, and asked him to audition for an understudy spot. So, Frierson put his interpreting career on hold to take a dive into his other passion again. He became the understudy for three different parts in the 12-person cast for “American Utopia,” and performed in the show in December, as well as in a scaled-down version, adjusted to help audiences enjoy it more safely during the Omicron surge in New York City.
The choreography reminds Frierson of his time in marching bands. Altogether, it’s a simple yet musically exciting show. Many of the songs are from Bryne’s career with the Talking Heads, but he and the cast use them as jumping off points to address contemporary societal themes.
Frierson describes it as a message of hope. “You know, we’re all confused about this human experience and life, and nobody really has it figured out,” he says. “We’re all trying to figure out how to talk and relate to each other, and also how to live in a society with each other… we can all imagine a better future.” The theme comes full-circle back to where he was, doing his best to use his skills to make a better world.
While Frierson expects a few musical connections to come out of performing in “American Utopia,” he doesn’t anticipate staying in show business full-time. There’s just not many talking drum parts in Broadway shows. Instead, he plans to get back to his own band on the side, bringing in what he’s learned from a stint with David Byrne on the Broadway stage.
And he’s also glad to get back to court interpreting, using his language skills to make a difference every day for the people who may need him most.
Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Evan Frierson