Say their names: Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise.
The five New York teenagers fell victim to a modern lynch mob mentality, wrongly convicted of the brutal April 1989 beating and rape of a jogger in Central Park despite lack of physical evidence or eyewitness testimony. Amid a whirlwind of media misinformation and Trump-incited racist hysteria, the prosecution relied on coerced, retracted confessions (after extended deceptive interrogations with no lawyer or parents present) to send the four youngest defendants to juvenile lockup for six-year maximum sentences — for a crime they didn’t commit. The oldest, sixteen year old Korey Wise, survived 13 years in New York’s notorious Rikers Island pen.
Then, in 2002, a convicted serial rapist and murderer confessed to the attack, and DNA evidence confirmed he was the sole perpetrator. The innocent teens’ convictions were overturned. For their precious stolen years, and in compensation for the justice system’s intentional violations of their rights, they later received over $40 million in compensation from New York.
The story of the Central Park Five has been told in books, a Netflix dramatization, a PBS documentary, and more. It’s part of a much bigger, and older, and, sadly, continuing story, as Friderike Heuer’s ArtsWatch story explains. And now it’s an acclaimed opera running through March 26 at Portland’s Newmark Theater.
Composer Anthony Davis and librettist Richard Wesley’s The Central Park Five is “a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful,” declared the jury that awarded CP5 the 2020 Pulitzer Prize — just weeks before police murdered George Floyd, and protests erupted over police killing of Breonna Taylor.
It received a 2016 workshop production from New Jersey’s Trilogy opera company, and a full June 2019 production from California’s visionary Long Beach Opera, making Portland Opera’s only the second full American production.
A new opera that addresses one of our country’s most urgent social issues, written and directed by diverse and respected artists of color, and a Pulitzer winner no less — it’s a breakthrough for Portland Opera, after so many years of endless reruns of the same old same old 19th and early 20th century classics in musty old productions. Pulsing with big issues and big emotions, it’s a story well suited to opera, and especially to this creative and production team. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Composer of Conscience
Kevin Maynor, an opera singer and artistic director or Trilogy, a Newark opera company devoted to stories by and about Black experience, recognized that the Central Park travesty provided a potentially powerful perspective on some of America’s most persistent social injustices. He asked award-winning playwright/screenwriter/librettist Richard Wesley to write a libretto for an opera about the tragedy. Then he asked New Jersey native Davis to suggest a composer. Davis nominated himself.
Davis was a logical candidate because of his track record of successful, politically charged, ahead-of-their-time operas, including 1986’s X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X,” (written before the Spike Lee movie), Amistad (written before the Spielberg film also about the infamous slave ship), and Tania, based on the Patty Hearst case. Central Park Five was written before Ava DuVernay’s recent Netflix series. Davis, who’s taught at the University of California San Diego for a quarter century, also composed the music for Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and has written dozens of orchestral, chamber, choral, dramatic and dance scores.
My admiration for Davis preceded his operatic adventures, when decades ago I encountered the progressive pianist/composer’s avant jazz chamber works. His eclectic music owes its broad stylistic ambit to diverse influences ranging from Nietzsche to Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington, to college study of gamelan and south Indian music to Berg, Puccini, Wagner and other Euroclassical masters. He brings that diverse palette to his operatic and orchestral writing too.
Throughout his career, Davis, now 71, has applied his musical talents to the urgent issues of our time, often refracted through a historical lens.
“I remember fantasizing, when I first started in opera, that I was kind of a guerrilla,” he told Opera America. “I always thought about this idea of being subversive in [the opera] world, because when I first went into it, I thought of opera institutions as being part of the elite, the establishment. But to go into that space and present things that speak about the power structure, and inequities, and what’s going on in the political world to me was a kind of a subversive act. And that was exciting to me because I was always looking for ways to be an activist with art — art could provoke and art could be provocative; art could also try to understand what underlies the political moment.”
Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed puts it more concisely.
“Anthony Davis has helped give American opera — often and importantly African American opera — a conscience.”
From the Courtroom to the Stage
Along with the five teens, their parents, the ‘80s-power-suited prosecutor, and the actual rapist, one recognizable establishment character does appear, or rather intrudes. Developer Donald Trump used some of his inherited fortune to buy a 1989 full-page ad in each of New York’s four major newspapers, demanding restoration of the death penalty, which had been suspended or repealed in many jurisdictions after the US Supreme Court found it to operate in a racist form, disproportionately applied to Black defendants. Trump used his ill-gotten wealth and celebrity to make false, dehumanizing accusations about something he knew nothing about in order to inflame latent racist motions for his own political gain. Sound familiar?
If Trump (who never recanted, even after DNA evidence definitively exonerated the five) and other bloodthirsty grandstanders had gotten their way, it’s possible that all five guiltless boys would have been killed by the state before their innocence could have been proved. (One of the joys of the curtain call is the opportunity, lustily indulged in by the Portland audience at the performance I attended, to boo and hiss at the preening Trump, portrayed as a strutting object of comic derision, all over again.)
As the main antagonist, along with the prosecuting district attorney, Wesley contrived a composite character called The Masque, in which a single actor/singer rotates through the roles of the, cops, judge, jury and media. That’s how the implacable white-dominated establishment appeared to the teenagers it victimized, and it suggests one of many ways racism is systemic. I guess that means we won’t be seeing any productions of The Central Park Five in Florida schools anytime soon.
The story is framed as a flashback from their exoneration, moving from the teens’ arrest and extended coercive interrogations (without lawyers or guardians) that produced false confessions under duress, through the deeply flawed trial and sentencing, and eventually, freedom, though a quick coda makes clear that there’s no happy ending — or maybe any ending — to this story.
That’s because, like so many powerful dramas, it also tells a bigger story — about America’s injustice system, which disproportionately arrests, prosecutes, and punishes people of color. In fact, The Central Park Five is less about five teens than about two worlds: how the institutions of the adult “white” world look to marginalized kids of color, and how those kids are viewed — stereotyped, that is — solely because of their skin color and racist cultural assumptions by many white people in power. It tries to show the audience how each side regards the other.
“What I think the artist is trying to get at is empathy,” the composer told National Public Radio. “In watching it on stage — whether you’re African-American, Caucasian, Asian, whatever — you become one of the five. You feel like you’re the one being interrogated. You feel how you could have been coerced [into giving a false confession] And then the loss of innocence that the five experienced, that is a very universal emotion.”
The grueling, deceitful interrogations are indeed the opera’s most effective scenes. But they can only go so far to establish the empathy Davis seeks. Wesley made an understandable artistic choice to focus on the events surrounding the arrest and trial. That dramatic unity of time and place imbues the opera with tremendous tension, and fuels our anger — as it should— at the shady police tactics (one reason for the big judgment New York paid the five victims) and inflammatory public discourse.
But the artistic decision to eschew character drama perforce sacrifices the emotional depth that could be gleaned by showing us something about these teens beyond their victimhood. And that makes it harder for us to care about them, and their parents, as fully realized people rather than representative figures. They’re given dramatic moments, rather than dramatic arcs that would show how they respond and grow in the confronting crises. The four youngest victims become almost interchangeable because the libretto gives them slight opportunity to show who they are as individuals. Though some smart, expressive acting in this production helps redress the libretto’s shortcomings in this area, ironically, that kind of flattening threatens to mirror what the press and cops and Trump did — turn real people into caricatures.
And when the oldest, Khary, who served double the sentence of the others, sings his wrenching aria, “Who’s Going to Pay Me Back?!”, he’s telling us how he suffered, rather than the opera showing us “the chunks of me that were ripped out.”
Similarly, when the five exonerated teens sing their closing, redemptive chorus, “The World is Ours” (not coincidentally, the only fully consonant song in the opera), we’re again merely told in song, rather than shown via action, how their families, faith and inner strength sustained them through all those terrible years. Opera, like any narrative art form, works best when it dramatizes emotion, rather than declaims it.
I could do with less stage time devoted to legal tactics and more to the five ostensible subjects. Say their names, yes, but also — tell their stories. But that’s a different, and bigger, tale than this opera wants to tell, or really any single stage show probably can effectively dramatize in a couple hours.
The Sound of Harlem
Combine that occasional dramatic distancing with stretches of chilly modernist vocal melodies, and Central Park Five can sometimes make it difficult to emotionally connect to its characters. In his operas, “Davis writes angular, incisive vocal lines in the mid-century modernist tradition,” The New Yorker’s Alex Ross writes. “The Central Park Five is to a great extent a symphonic jazz score, in the tradition of Ellington’s long-form pieces and, in its more seething stretches, of [1960s avant-jazzers] Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor. The score is dark, propulsive, and, at times, wrenchingly lyrical.”
It’s also eclectic. Since it’s a Harlem story, Davis channeled multiple musical styles that have emanated from that historically Black cultural hotbed for decades, from Ellington to rap, woven in with those modernist and Romantic opera influences.
“I borrowed, the way hip-hop samples music from earlier,” he told Opera America. “I tried to use funk grooves that they might use. And I tried to capture a little bit of what hip-hop does with rhythm and speech. I have this section of the opera called ‘We are the freaks who own the night’ the way the lyrics tumble out, it’s very much inspired by the way hip-hop works.”
The instrumentation is similarly multi generational, from orchestral horns to jazzy saxes and drum kit to synths, samplers and other electronics. There’s even a musical quote from Parliament’s biggest hit (issued more than a decade before the events of the opera) in a brief, full fledged funk eruption. “The score draws on that whole spectrum of the African American musical tradition,” Davis told State of the Arts.
Davis expertly layers these influences so they sound organic rather than contrived, and thereby soften some of the thornier sounds. For instance, while the singers may be intoning discordant vocal melodies, the instrumental score swings along like an Ellington orchestral suite. At other moments, he reverses the formula, intentionally chilling a relatively warm vocal tune with ominous dissonances in the horn-fueled orchestra. It’s frequently an effective contrasting combination, reminding us musically that the teens’ happiest times are never free from the threat of oppression, while even their worst moments contain the possibility of redemption.
From Harlem to Portland
Portland Opera’s striking new production effectively underlines the libretto’s parallel-worlds portrayal. You can read more about the new production in Angela Allen’s upcoming ArtsWatch review, but to my eyes, the powerful staging, singing, acting and design contribute immensely to this show’s success. Garrett, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, uses staging and imagery to connect today’s fraught racial landscape with its three-decade-old predecessor. The two-level staging makes action in the “white” world (courtroom, police offices, Trump) literally happen above the Black world (street, jail, prison) below. When characters sometimes transgress those boundaries, it’s for good dramatic reasons.
Designers Mariana Sanchez (scenery), Wanda Walden (costumes), Jason Lynch (lighting), and — most spectacularly Rasean Davonté Johnson, whose projections and sounds brilliantly bring the urban energy of the teens’ circumscribed world to life. Like Garrett and the entire cast (and much of the leadership team), they’re all newcomers to Portland Opera, and I hope this successful collaboration portends further partnerships between OSF and PO, and more guest artists of similar caliber.
New York’s City Opera plans a production soon, and Michigan Opera Theater is bringing Davis’s X back this year. His many other projects in progress include an opera based on the horrific 1921 Tulsa white supremacist race massacre. As opera companies and other white dominated cultural institutions at last begin or intensify the long-overdue rethinking of their missions, pioneers like Davis have been there all along, showing them the way. It’s not like opera has avoided social issues, going back to Davis favorite Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Beethoven’s Fidelio and beyond. But after decades of avoiding current controversies, it’s refreshing to see companies like Portland Opera bringing us stories and sounds immediately relevant to 21st century America.
“I think those are important issues that every company needs to explore, particularly with all the race issues brought up by George Floyd, etc.,” Davis recently told San Francisco Classical Voice. “And actually, this enforced break allows them to really view and think about what the role of opera has been and whether it’s going to be on the side of change and progress or on the side of trying to reinforce the cultural apartheid that exists in our country.”
That larger — and continuing — narrative is, tragically, about a lot more than five people. But their own story deserves retelling.
Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Korey Wise. Say their names. Sing their names. Tell their stories.
The Central Park Five continues at 7:30 p.m. Fri & Sun, March 24 & 26 at Portland’s Newmark Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, portlandopera.org. $35–210. Digital access available April 8-May 20, Portland Opera Onscreen, $50.
More on Anthony Davis and Central Park Five.
Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.