In 1960, an African American second grader tried to go to her local public school, only to face venomous racist protestors outside the entrance and laws that forbade Black kids from attending that elementary school. For the next year, amid continuing protests, Ruby Bridges was forced to confront the mob every day with police escorts, only to find herself taking her classes alone.
Portland composer and jazz musician Darrell Grant’s Step by Step: the Ruby Bridges Suite musicalizes this critical moment in American history, using it as a lens to view the national civil rights struggle of the era. As we were painfully reminded over the past couple years, that struggle continues today. So it was welcome to see Grant’s exuberant multimedia creation return to Portland, where it was born, April 1-2 in performances at First Unitarian Church.
Step by Step is more than a concert. Projected photos and voice-over statements from historical figures mingled with Grant’s tuneful, straight ahead jazz. Performed by the composer on keyboards, an ensemble of Oregon jazz vets, cellist Hasan Abualhaj, and choirs–all ably conducted by FUP music director DeReau Farrar–the music rose and fell in accord with the drama, sometimes shifting to a low volume vamp to make it easier to hear the words: poetry, speeches, newspaper articles, reminiscences and more.
American turning point
Those words provided historical context for for Ruby’s challenge to Jim Crow. Any work of documentary music or theater must strike a balance between exposition — recounting the history that inspired it — and entertainment. Step by Step thankfully leans away from Wikipedia docudrama and toward primary sources — words and images from the period it covers. But unless you’ve read Bridges’ award-winning 2000 memoir Through My Eyes (which inspired Grant to compose his suite) or another chronicle–or a more extensive program note than provided at this performance–viewers mightn’t appreciate its historical significance.
In 1960, three years after the notorious Little Rock crisis that brought federal troops to Arkansas to enforce court-ordered desegregation of legally mandated all-white schools, Bridges became the first African-American child to desegregate New Orleans’s previously all-white Frantz Elementary School. Her entrance (escorted by Federal marshals) and continuing protests by white racists happened at a critical moment in America’s civil rights movement. White parents pulled their kids out of the school, and every teacher but one refused to teach her. For the rest of that fraught first year, Ruby was the only student in her second-grade class. Her family faced reprisals; her courage won widespread praise. The incident was commemorated by Norman Rockwell in his famous painting, The Problem We All Live With.
Bridges still lives in New Orleans and set up a foundation that works to promote tolerance and fight racism. A statue of her now stands in her old school’s courtyard.
Grant’s suite premiered at Reed College in 2012 and has since been performed elsewhere, including Nashville, New Orleans, and Washington DC’s Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History. This was its first, and long overdue Oregon performance since its debut.
Tell you this
In the prelude, variations on and expansion of the spiritual “Let My People Go” accompanied a photo of W.E.B. DuBois and a quotation from his famous 1906 speech to the Niagara movement. “Step by Step” opened with a melody like a children’s playground chant, accompanying photos of 12-year old Ruby at the school entrance and FUP’s Senior Minister Bill Sinkford reading from an admiring reminiscence of someone who saw her that day, resolute. The movement ended with a rousing “I won’t look back,” powerfully delivered by singer Amber Schroeder.
Rev. Sinkford also made an effective reader of a Supreme Court opinion — no easy task! — in chief Justice Warren’s unanimous opinion outlawing legal school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education, back in that halcyon time when the Court briefly stood up for the rights of the oppressed instead of, as today, the oppressors.
The show proceeds chronologically from there, with a moving choral lament (“Why Have You Forsaken Us?”) accompanying photos of the movement’s subsequent triumphs and reversals of fortune, including the white supremacist murder of Emmett Till, the Little Rock 9, the Freedom Riders, the Mississippi police attack on peaceful civil rights marchers, the horrific Birmingham church bombing. (If these references aren’t familiar to you, check out any good history of the movement, like the documentary Eyes on the Prize or Richard Kluger’s book Simple Justice, which focuses on the legal struggle.) Grant’s music effectively blended quotes from spirituals and biblical texts with supple jazz.
Maybe the loveliest moment came in “Summer 1959,” which opened with melancholy piano and cello before the rest of the band joined. A recitation of the ‘rules’ of white supremacy followed, unctuously declaimed in a white Southern accent (“Number 7: never comment on the appearance of a white woman.”)
“Tell You This” brought some needed angry heat to the choir and band. It featured quotations from actual Jim Crow-era law texts in Southern states–and, among others, an implied reference to the Supreme Court’s shameful and factually unwarranted 2013 gutting of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which in turn helped bring about the past decade’s unrepresentative, anti-African American election results throughout areas of the unrepentant South.
Just after a racist chant of the time (“2,4,6,8, we don’t want to integrate!”), more welcome anger — the musical equivalent of John Lewis’s ‘good trouble’ — fueled the upbeat strutting instrumental “The Cheerleaders,” named for a group of Black women who stood strong behind Bridges. Its zesty wailing recalled, in spirit anyway, Charles Mingus’s strangely fun yet furious “Fables of Faubus,” written in the heat of that same fraught moment.
Keller’s electrifying performance of the suite’s original climactic song, “Hold My Hand,” provided more highlights and the biggest applause of the afternoon. It accompanied Bridges’ remembrance of the lone supportive white teacher who helped her endure the virulent opposition of white racists who picketed the school every day.
In the post-show talkback, Grant revealed that after the Suite’s original incarnation, he added a new penultimate song, “Come In,” inspired by a moment in Bridges’ memoir when she apparently tried to talk to belligerent racist protestors. She was actually praying for them.
I never saw the original version (which also lacked the gospel choir and other vocal soloists), but here, that crucial addition transforms the story’s climax from a passive Ruby being granted grace by a white savior to a protagonist with agency who finds redemption through merciful action: prayerful forgiveness. It turns the suite’s subtitle into a double entendre, a verb as well as a surname. The concluding “We Rise,” borne on the words of Maya Angelou, brought the suite to a stirring close and the cheering audience to its feet.
In the post-show talk, as fascinating in its way as the concert, Grant also noted that other things had changed since he wrote it a decade ago, when Barack Obama was President and neo-Nazi white supremacist movements, though among the most dangerous terrorists in the country, still flew below the radar of a clueless mainstream media and politicians. The events of Little Rock and New Orleans “felt like ancient history then,” Grant ruefully admitted. In the wake of subsequent murderous white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville and Charleston and beyond, and police violence against Black Americans from George Floyd to just last week, Step by Step’s images of bombed-out churches and police dogs and fire hoses set upon peaceful activists felt almost contemporary.
And while Bridges and others succeeded in helping eliminate racist public school admission laws, school segregation is actually worse now than half a century ago, Sinkford noted, thanks to white flight, right-wing Supreme Court edicts, and other systemic racism. That’s why artists still need to use what Grant memorably called the “fugitive energy of art” to respond in works like Step by Step. “Art is the place where artists get to put tough issues on the table,” he said. Many steps toward racial equality have been taken, including those depicted in the Ruby Bridges Suite. Many more remain.
As much as I enjoyed Grant’s sparkling music, as always, I suspect Step by Step is even more valuable as a teaching vehicle, especially for white liberals like those I suppose made up most of the audience. Combining evocative music with Bridges’ own words and images, capably set in historical context, helped us get closer to imagining how the experience felt from the inside. (The performance was actually funded under the auspices of the 2022 Marilyn Sewell Social Justice Lecture, named for the church’s former minister.) Accompanied by a more extensive program note, and maybe discussion materials, I can imagine a live or recorded Step by Step finding a home in educational settings–except in places like Florida and Texas that seem hell-bent on stifling any “unpleasant” topics that would contradict their historical white supremacist narratives.
As Ruby bridged racial gaps then, so does Grant now. In the decade since he conceived Step by Step, Grant has gone on to create other, more musically ambitious multimedia shows, like The Territory and the gripping 21 Cartas with the great Portland singer Edna Vazquez, one of my favorite performances of 2019. (I’m still bummed to have missed his Sanctuaries opera last year. Fortunately, ArtsWatch’s Charles Rose didn’t.)
Widely admired here for his generous political and educational efforts — building bridges — as well as his music, the Portland State prof keeps finding creative and compelling ways to combine words and images, music and messages, to tell stories we all need to hear.
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