During a community workshop for what will become the jazz opera A Gathering of Sons, baritone Miles Wilson-Toliver is playing the part of Victor, a young black man who is about to be shot and killed by a white police office in a senseless act of violence. His voice is clear and full, almost soothing, as he defiantly sings “you descend from murderers.”
It is a charged scene, difficult for the audience to watch. They are mostly parishioners of Judah Fellowship Church in the Hill District, there both for their regular Saturday evening service and to see selections of Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s upcoming production about police violence against people of color.
Wilson-Toliver has his hands up, is facing the audience, and in this workshop, since the person playing the police officer is not present, he is being harassed by an ominous offstage voice. It is the audience’s second time seeing the scene. They had listened as Jonathan Eaton, the artistic director of the opera company, gave his feedback and provided staging directions to the actor. It is impossible to ignore that Eaton is a middle-aged, white male with a British accent telling a young black man how he should be performing the role of a young black man who has the gun of a police officer to his back.
Eaton directs Wilson-Toliver to use his body to express himself more and turn to face the officer who will shoot him. The audience can feel the difference in the tension and witness a performance find itself, as if in a rehearsal. But Eaton is not the only one giving creative input. He stops the music abruptly as Wilson-Toliver’s character, Victor, is about to run at the command of the police officer. Eaton thinks that the cop telling Victor to run is a get-away free ticket. “I think he should smile,” he says. Everyone in the audience understands the situation differently. People yell out from their seats that when a cop tells you to run, it ain’t to let you go, but to give the cop a reason to pull the trigger. “You know that ‘Run!’ is a death sentence,” one woman says.
Later, during the panel discussion after the performance, local artist and singer Anita Levels will describe watching Eaton and Wilson-Toliver’s interactions as uncomfortable. “To hear it chopped up as art is difficult,” says Levels. Members of the audience nod in agreement. The uncomfortability is part of what Eaton and the troupe of Pittsburgh Festival Opera want to achieve in these workshops. He also seems to enjoy the audience’s feedback; he was happy to concede they understood that aspect of the scene better than he did.
“It’s a big deal—this piece,” Eaton proclaims. And that is why A Gathering of Sons is an opera commissioned by the company as part of its “Music That Matters” series. “If opera is to matter, we need to do pieces that are about the American social experience, now,” he adds.
Previously, the company commissioned and performed the “eco-opera” A New Kind of Fallout, which grew out of the societal ripples Rachel Carson’s Silence Spring caused when it was released in the 1960s. One of the things Judah Fellowship Pastor Shanea Leonard likes about this opera is that by having soprano Anqwenique Winfield take on different roles as the elements, such as Sky, it shows that environmental justice is part of social justice.
A Gathering of Sons, however, is more controversial, more confrontational. The libretto was written by Tameka Cage Conley, a writer who lived in Pittsburgh before taking a position at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. It has been put to music by Dwayne Fulton, minister of music and fine arts at the Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Larimer. The final production, which will be at Winchester Thurston Schools’ Falk Auditorium in July, will be directed by Pittsburgh Playwright’s founder Mark Clayton Southers.
A Gathering of Sons is very much a work in progress. Fulton is still setting parts of Conley’s libretto to music. Stage directions are in flux. And the ultimate shape of the opera has yet to take place. Since December of 2016, Pittsburgh Festival Opera has been holding workshops for the community to witness the creative process as well as take part in it. Pastor Leonard feels that the opera’s story is one that could not be told without input from the community. “It also brings the message of social justice to a new audience,” she adds, thinking of the opera’s ultimate venue of traditional opera goers.
“Hopefully people see these conversations reflected in the play,” Eaton says. The real aim of the workshops seems to be to create an audience that feels engaged not only in the social message of the opera, but also the creation of an artwork for the community. The workshops are free and have been held in various community venues around the Pittsburgh. Previous workshops were held at the Union Project and BOOM Concepts, and future workshops will take place at Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, Hill House, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh-Homewood. Everyone who attends a workshop will receive 40% off to the performances of the completed production.
The audience and parishioners that night also have some more suggestions for where Pittsburgh Festival Opera might hold other workshops to ensure they receive feedback from those who are depicted in the opera. One person recommends a viewing of the work close to when it premiers solely for young men of color, those who are all-too-often the target of police violence. The strongest message they have for the company, however, is to ensure that this piece was not simply their black opera. Everyone wants to see them make it something we deal with daily.
“One of the things about opera is,” Eaton says, “is you can’t have one if people don’t raise their voice.”
For tickets and more information, click here.
Upcoming workshops include:
Friday 10 March at 7:00 pm
First United Methodist Church
5401 Centre Ave
Pittsburgh PA 15232
Wednesday 15 March at 7:00 pm
Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council
810 Penn Ave, 6th Floor
Pittsburgh PA 15222
Wednesday 29 March at 7:00 pm
1835 Centre Ave
Pittsburgh PA 15208
Wednesday 12 April at 7:00 pm
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
7101 Hamilton Ave
Pittsburgh PA 15208