Five years ago, Opera Philadelphia handed writer Marc Bamuthi Joseph a stack of 400 poems written by teenagers at the Art Sanctuary in North Philadelphia. They were the result of a program coordinated by director Valerie Gay and Opera Philadelphia’s Michael Bolton.
“Those children really respected and wanted Michael in the room,” said Joseph. “They had a very special relationship. It made a big impression on me.”
It was meant to lay the groundwork for something that could inform a future opera. After reading that stack of poems, Joseph — who co-founded the national youth performance poetry conference and competition Brave New Voices — was underwhelmed. They were not as good as they could be.
“Working with teens from all over the country, I know young people can be politically astute, cosmologically aspirational, really wide-ranging in term so social perspective,” he said. “I found these poems were narrow.”
At the time, Philadelphia schools were in crisis. Then-mayor Michael Nutter had to take out an emergency loan to keep the school district open. The city was also coming up on the 30th anniversary of the MOVE bombing, when Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the house of activist John Africa and the MOVE organization in West Philadelphia. Eleven people were killed, including five children. The resulting fire destroyed 65 homes.
These two things came together in Joseph’s mind. He did something he had never done before: wrote an opera libretto.
“The first draft was just a long-ass poem,” he said during a recent rehearsal for the premiere of “We Shall Not Be Moved.” “Maybe that’s what we have here in this moment, but it’s organized a bit more formally.”
“We Shall Not Be Moved” is part of Opera Philadelphia’s grand programming experiment. This week, it opens its 2017-2018 season with O17, a two-week festival of five opera productions, including three world premieres.
Living in the shadow of MOVE
Informally, the new opera became known as the MOVE opera, but Joseph says its not about that incident in 1985, but rather about contemporary teenagers living in the shadow of MOVE.
“There are no verbatim quotes from John Africa. None of the children are proxies of the MOVE nine,” he said. “These are young people who, in 2017, live in the crosshairs of race, politics, underfunded education, and environmental danger — the same conditions John Africa was responding to 40 years ago.”
The opera, premiering Saturday, is about a group of teenagers on the run who take refuge in a vacant building now on the site of the MOVE bombing. It’s populated by ghosts, reminders of the past.
Director Bill T. Jones, based in New York, vividly remembers the anger he and everyone he knew felt when they heard about the bombing in 1985. The recent neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in the death of a demonstrator, brought that moment back to life for him.
“Those hard feelings we thought were repressed, they are back with us again,” he said. “The lessons of the MOVE have not been digested.”
Jones, an icon of modern dance, is directing a mostly black cast of classically-trained singers, singers experienced in more popular R&B and pop styles, spoken word performers, and break dancers. As a hybrid of many styles, the opera challenges the traditional opera form in order to attract non-traditional audiences.
“I often hear from young black people: ‘I want to see things on stage where people look like me,’” he said. “What does that statement mean, to look like me? Do they feel like me? Are they doing a form that represents me? Opera Philadelphia is putting it out there that they are making a new form. The audience will be welcomed, but they have to learn.”
While Jones is uneasy compartmentalizing “We Shall Not Be Moved” as black, Daniel Bernard Roumain, the composer and longtime collaborator with Jones is adamant about his music being black. He jokes that he wants to sell t-shirts in the lobby that say “This Is black music.” Some of the singers were chosen specifically because their voices sound black.
Roumain wrote notations into the musical score that instruct the singer how they should deliver the notes. Where some composers would notate “Improvise freely” in the score, Roumain prefers, “I trust you.”
“Notation says a lot about a composer,” he said. “‘Dolce’ is just an Italian word for ‘sweet,’ but it’s an Italian moniker to tell the musician how to play. I’ve always taken issue with that. In my score, you’ll see things like, ‘As funky as a guitar solo by Prince.’ Where singers come in, I’ve written in the score who I want them to think about, as they make their entrance: ‘For Trayvon Martin.’”
“We Shall Not Be Moved” grapples with police brutality, gentrification, and a failing educational system. A police officer is taken hostage. A confrontation unearths deeply-held hostilities.
Among the layers of conflict — both personal and social — Joseph left space for exaltation.
“Black with a capital ‘B’ has a certain politic with it. But I like to think about black joy,” said Joseph. “The matter of black life in the last five or six years has been hyper-documented in relationship with death and demise. Black Lives Matter doesn’t come out of a celebration black life; it says another black life has been unjustly executed. When, in fact, black joy matters.”
“We Shall Not Be Moved” will have six sold-out performances, through next weekend, at the Wilma Theater.