Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Not Just in Philadelphia

Roumain and Joseph’s We Shall Not Be Moved
New York Premiere
Apollo Theater
October 7, 2017

Opera Philadelphia's highly topical opera at the Apollo Theater in Harlem
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph enlisted the collaboration of a group of high school students, who participated in Art Sanctuary’s Hip H’opera public outreach program, to assemble a timely story about justice and inequality in Philadelphia. Picking up where Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me leaves off, We Shall Not Be Moved is a new “opera” commissioned and co-produced by the Apollo Theater, Opera Philadelphia and Hackney Empire that delves dramatically into the politics of living in certain bodies, especially black and brown, but also transgendered bodies.

John Little, John Blue, John Mack, Un/Sung, and John Henry
Photo credit: Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia
We Shall Not Be Moved is the story of five dynamic teenagers who live in present day Philadelphia where they have recently begun attending a new high school because their previous one fell victim to the city’s 2013 budget cuts. True story. One morning while cutting school they have a run in that leads inadvertently to murder. Rather than stick around to face the consequences, they decide to runaway and form a “Family,” as they call themselves. They end up squatting in an abandoned row house on the West side of town.

The Family on the run and in search of a new home
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
It doesn’t take long for a hardworking Latina female police officer with a heart of gold, who dutifully works the beat in the neighborhood, to become aware of their presence. But they also attract the attention of another “family” who already lives in their new temporary home. They are the ghosts of the people, often referred as OGs (or “original gangsters”), who lost their lives in a tragic fire caused by a police raid on the block years prior.

The other "family" of Osage Ave in West Philly.
MOVE headquarters in the background
Our motley crew of young people on the run just happened to stumble upon one of the darker chapters in the city’s history. Back in the 1980s the block was ground zero for the MOVE organization that was cruelly treated with an all-too-familiar brand of lawlessness by local law enforcement. “No justice in Philadelphia, not just in Philadelphia,” goes the refrain in one of the more empowering musical numbers.

The 1985 blaze on Osage Avenue
Photo credit: Philly Mag
Matt Saunders’s set design consisted of half a dozen moving translucent panels shaped like the familiar facades of row houses, not unlike the ones that the police fire bombed in West Philly back in May 1985 when they went to rout the intransigent radical community of black liberation activists known as MOVE. The blaze destroyed 61 homes, displaced 250 residents, and took 11 casualties, including five children.

A melancholic Un/Sung against the row house set design
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Unbeknownst to the young gang of runaways, they have sought refuge in the home that now stands on the site of the former MOVE headquarters. The site is still inhabited by the ghosts of the OGs who died there some 32 years prior. Rather than haunting the new inhabitants, the ghosts inspire them with cryptic words of wisdom.

John Blue and crew on the lam
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
When the policewoman decides to make a house call on the crew knowing they should probably be in school, she quickly finds herself in over her head and on her own. In the heat of the moment, she overreacts and mistakenly fires her gun, leaving one of the youths gravely wounded. The accident represents both another instance of senseless police brutally and a cosmic coincidence of sorts. The victim of the murder that sent the Family into hiding in the first place just happens to be the cop’s younger brother. The course of events also represents the kind of messy retribution through questionable divine intervention familiar from the greatest of Greek tragedies. But the equation isn’t so simple. The officer is not in only shock from her unintended action, but she is also outnumbered. The rest of Family assails her. They take her gun and use it to take her hostage.

In the opening of Act II, John Henry, sung by street-smart bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, lays bleeding in a pool of his own blood. Projections by Jorge Cousineau enlivened the sets of these inner city American streets with a variety of video and animation approaches, including the stunning effects he employs to give Henry an out-of-body experience. The scene opens a musical window into his soul, during which time he sings an “aria” of sorts, rap ballad-style. He stands up and spits his rhymes, while a projected image of his body remains on the ground. It was one of the moments in the show when time literally stood still and it was pretty powerful.

The tempos and volumes increase in the midst of John Henry’s near death experience. “Black body gone too soon,” the chorus of onlookers intones. The most intense, panic-filled music of the evening punctuated this moment in the drama for the rest of the crew, yet John Henry’s soul exuded a certain peace. “Lay me down,” he croons.

John Henry struggles through a near death experience
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Roumain’s score sets Joseph’s libretto aflame with a variety of musical genres and singing styles. Hip-hop, R&B, classic soul, funk, and slam poetry collide with baroque, classical and Broadway-style musical theater modes of storytelling in what is being billed as a new “opera.” Calling this piece an opera is a generous appellation, but it is also cause to rejoice if the term is capacious enough to encapsulate such an eclectic hybrid.    

Roumain, whose score pulls some seriously dirty funk bow work out of a small string section, expands the range of operatic language to include electronic synthesizers, a drum kit, electric guitar and bass. The use of amplification and microphones for the singers is perhaps the greatest departure for an opera setting. Nevertheless, a palpable street energy exudes from the pit with passages of breakdance syncopation, foot-stomping tribal beats, and pop-music structures, featuring refrains, rife with da capo repetitions, remix-style.

The classic operatic practice of relegating dialogue to recitatives gets swapped out for a sort of narration delivered by Un/Sung, a spoken word artist with a spirit that electrifies. In the midst of all of these contemporary musical idioms, the texture of the score also occasionally breaks into opera.

Officer Glenda is taken hostage after the fatal shot is fired
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
One of the particularly inventive crossover concepts was the repeated use of countertenor John Holiday as the kind of soulful falsetto often heard singing backup vocals on a rap ballad, harmonizing with the beat before breaking out into some kind of a solo that adds flourishes of color to a track. Having made his name as a god of the Baroque countertenor/castrato repertory, Holiday has a voice that is clean and pure. He had some of the most striking musical numbers of the evening, lending his angelic instrument to Michael Jackson-style soulful falsetto lines that were less operatic than R&B.

John Blue searches for answers to pervasive body questions
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Holiday played John Blue, a transgender man whose frustrations over the trials and tribulations of his racial identity are further burdened by the fluidity of gender he has lived with all his life. Assigned a woman at birth, he longs to change the body he was given. As in the long tradition of operatic gender bending, Holiday is a male singer in the role of a woman who identifies as a man. In one of the projections we see him in the body wrap he wears to mask his femininity. “Blackbird sing, blackbird fly.” So the opera takes on an even broader array of questions about bodies than even Coates allowed for in his influential book. John Blue’s moving plight dramatizes what you get when you find race and the gender predicaments all rolled up in the struggle of one courageous individual.

The texture of vocal writing for Glenda, the Latina policewoman, was slightly different. Mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez sang the soulful Latin-flavored role with a bluesy gusto. She gave her portrayal something of the female strength and conviction one finds in the exotic rhythms of Bizet’s Carmen, which we have also heard Chávez sing.  

A police officer with a heart of gold
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Glenda stands her ground as a dedicated law enforcement officer who is dead set on social respectability in her aspirations toward old-fashioned social mobility. Unfortunately, I found the musical writing for more purely operatic voices like hers to be the weakest. Nevertheless, the libretto goes to great lengths to humanize even the cops. Despite its overall diagnosis of systemic social injustice for people born into certain bodies, the police officer is given a dignified portrayal. The opera demands that we understand that officers of the law are just people too. Like all people, they have feelings and families and backstories and dreams of their own. Like all people they can make mistakes too. It’s only human, regardless of race, gender, gender, sexual orientation.

After John Henry’s victim-of-police-violence subplot runs its course, the ongoing narration of Officer Glenda’s story brings the opera to its true emotional and dramatic climax. Tied to a chair and held at gunpoint, she remains their hostage. The youngsters have to decide how they are going to handle their hostage situation. “Where is the fire gonna start again?” they ask rhetorically. “Here is where the fire is gonna start again.” The opera is punctuated by a series of almost infuriating moments that rouse a sense of indignation at the injustice of the world, stirs up anger, kindles frustration. It generated enough tension to keep me on the edge of my seat right up to the end.  

Un/Sung speaks her mind: "God bless my brothers and me"
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Un/Sung lectures her prisoner on the ways of the world. “The one holding the gun / determines the future of everyone,” she tauntingly rhymes. Though it sounds like a trite commonplace, her point packs a punch. She knows that power lies on the side of those who have a monopoly on violence – it’s political philosophy straight out of the pages of Carl Schmitt.

Their exchange leads to an incredibly human scene in which they finally recognize how much they actually have in common. “Just trying to stay alive,” raps Un/Sung. “So am I,” retorts Glenda humbly. To which Un/Sung responds, having broken away from her spoken word delivery style, now singing like songbird in full cry: “God bless my brothers and me!”

The action climaxes. Ghosts of OGs look on.
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
Her voice drops to graver tones, as she lifts the gun towards Glenda’s head to finally introduce herself by her birth name: “My name is Alicia. But you can call me Un/Sung!” She is at point blank range. The tension between them has reached fever pitch. Just as the gun is about to go pop, the lights flip dramatically to black. My heart jumped in my chest. The whole thing left me tingling.

“What is freedom?” the WRBG radio broadcaster muses at one point in the voice over that is featured at intervals over the course of the opera. “Swimming in the creek behind the house as a kid. Dancing. Listening to music,” are among the answers. We suddenly realize that the whole debacle has been recounted in flashback from the perspective of the police officer, who walked away from the whole affair alive.  

The ghosts in the box: A housing block rich with history
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia
The suggestion is that after the lights go out, a secret pact is made. They agree to let house burn. But did the kids burn in it? That’s the official story. But apparently, they got away and the police officer lives to tell the story and it’s a hot lead on the radio. “Cop tells all, live on WRBG.”

The aftermath of the blaze on a more ideological Osage Avenue
Photo credit: Philly Mag
“Was the Family motivated by big ideas, ideologies? Robespierre, the desire to live outside society, to establish some kind of external rule?” inquires the radio host. Speculation is made that these kids may have been inspired by the memory of the MOVE organization from the 1970s and 80s. Which, aside from their incidental supernatural contact with the ghostlike residue of the movement, obviously wasn’t the case. But the DJ’s inclination to make such a connection and credit them for revolutionary sophistication is a commentary in and of itself on how we come to understand the accidents of history.

Law enforcement cleans up after their own lawless catastrophe
Photo credit: Philly Mag
Though by no means a perfect experiment in contemporary opera, We Shall Not Be Moved provides ample fodder for reflection on a variety of questions related to race, gender, police violence, and social justice that are topical everywhere you look in our culture today. It was both stimulating on a human level and emotionally gripping. I found myself provoked, moved and profoundly frustrated. An evening at the theater is rarely able to achieve as much.

Lui & Lei

Daniel Bernard Roumain (composer), Bill T. Jones (director)
and Marc Balmuthi Joseph (librettist)

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