On Thursday, September 28, 2017, eminent singer, actress, radio and podcast host Helga Davis mediated an hour long conversation in WNYC/WQXR’s intimate performance and conversation venue, The Greene Space. Davis was joined by composer/performers Daniel Bernard Roumain and Toshi Reagon, as well as Apollo Theater executive producer Kamilah Forbes for an engaging and resolutely thought-provoking dialog exploring “the contributions of black artists to contemporary opera and the narratives they are driving in American culture,” concisely entitled, “Black Creativity.” The works being discussed included Roumain’s new opera, We Shall Not Be Moved, jointly commissioned by Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Opera Philadelphia and London’s Hackney Empire and Reagon’s genre-defying theatrical piece The Parable of the Sower, co-authored by her mother, eminent scholar, singer and activist Bernice Johnson Reagon and involving a diverse cast of twenty musicians and performers including Davis.
As things got started, Davis seemed to float onto the stage, held aloft by sparkling, stocky, pink footwear. Leveraging her signature, quirky elegance, she masterfully set the tone for the evening that followed as casual and inviting to the diverse and modest gathering (many of whom acknowledged being first-time Greene Space attendees), and during which each word spoken and viewpoint expressed were no less than poetry. As shown by her skillful pivot to the critical topics to be covered in the night’s discussion, Davis’ core strength is her ability to drive conversations forward with unflagging positivity. Even in moments darkened by serious or solemn energy, the result is a well-stayed course of meaningful and focused commentary that never seems to waiver or get lost in needless anecdotes. She is able to make room to allow for the fun and the serious to coexist.
Roumain’s work (with a libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and directed by Bill T. Jones) tells the story of the 1985 MOVE crisis in Philadelphia, during which a standoff between police and a black liberation group resulted in the deadly bombing of a residential neighborhood. From within a flurry of animated commentary, Roumain described the task of selecting his subject matter from a compellingly big-picture perspective. To unanimous nods and vocalizations of agreement from the audience, Roumain acknowledged that “the choices become severe in the experience of artists of color,” and went on to outline the grand responsibility to devise a meaningful narrative connected to the experiences of common people; that it was not so much his choice to tell this story, as it was a holistic revelation dictated to him by a complex and ancient web of influence and inspiration that could not allow itself to yield to vague operatic tropes, or manifest in theatrical whimsy.
Following his opening comments, the composer (playing violin beautifully) was joined on stage by bass-baritone Adam Richardson (who voiced his own role of John Mack and several others in the absence of his cast mates), poet and dramaturg Lauren Whitehead who spoke the role of a character called “Un/Sung” and pianist Mila Henry. The musical material unfolded with delicate sparsity, shimmering with luminous edges of lilting pentatonic blues and swelling in moments reminiscent of R&B before giving way to emergent passages of primordial dissonance reminiscent of Stravinsky or Bartok, or perhaps hearkening back to the seeds that inspired those composers in their own time.
In alignment with Roumain’s previous comments, Richardson recounted the experience of having seen his first opera, an experience that moved him profoundly enough to pursue this craft professionally, but in which he did not see anyone on the stage who (in his words) “looked like me.” Richardson commented that as a young operatic singer, having the opportunity to sing a role that isn’t from Porgy & Bess or Showboat (works that tell black stories, written by white men) is a dream come true.
In contrast with the historical retrospective of Roumain’s work, Toshi Reagon’s story looks back from a shockingly near and potentially accurate futuristic dystopia as imagined by the late science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler. The Parable of the Sower tells of a future in which climate change has caused the collapse of critical eco-systems resulting in a world shaped by vast wealth inequality and corporate greed. Indeed, the need to tell this story today is obvious, and no less critical than illuminating real past events, as in Roumain’s. Picking up a guitar and singing excerpts from the work, Reagon’s wonderfully folkish, ecstatic and pure musical voice made her points clearly, as her songs reached back toward ancient traditions and looked ahead with progressive and poignant words, each bearing equal gravity.
Even more, it was in the passionately optimistic commentary that followed her performance that Reagon crystallized her point; we cannot let the tyrant of the moment define our reality, but must work together to shape our trajectory forward. By plotting points that each individually may seem hopeless or mediocre, we draw a course to follow and create a profound constellation, the sigil of a better future. Right now might not seem so good, but right now shows us what tomorrow must be in order to ensure our survival.
Aligning perfectly with all of these deep sentiments, Apollo Theater executive producer Kamilah Forbes spoke about the incredible bridge being built in her organization, from Amateur Night at the Apollo to commissioning a 21st Century opera to be heard in New York, Philadelphia and London. When asked whether opera seemed rather far flung from The Apollo’s established identity, Forbes eloquently pointed out that The Apollo has always been a place of innovation, and that what is most critical is to avoid being confined by the form, and instead to redefine it from a new vantage, that of the black American experience not only being talked about (and distorted through rose-tinted lenses), but by doing the talking through these great artists.
To this point, Davis’ earlier invocation of the late Sekou Sundiata seemed to reverberate within the space, bolstering the importance of creating new cultural mythologies so that future generations may look back and understand not only who their predecessors may have been, but whom they themselves have the potential to become. Roumain and Reagon’s works are two shining stars in that mythical constellation, and it is clear that they will shine brightly upon that better future these artists are now empowered to inspire.