Isn’t it risky? How do you dare? Where will you get the money? Aren’t you afraid of criticism? Don’t you know you are white? Who do you think you are? These are some of the questions that arise when people hear about our new project, TRUTH, a new folk opera about the life of Sojourner Truth. The short answer is that it needs to be done. Of course there are many long answers. And honestly, I don’t feel afraid. Isn’t any form of bridge building worthwhile? And that’s what art is and does; creates a bridge for us to cross over to a new truth, to connect us, to surprise us, to engage us, to make us question our assumptions. The story of Sojourner Truth, though available and certainly well studied in academic circles, is essentially unknown in our culture. We know her as an icon, a stamp, a bust. She was one of the most important people in our American history, and certainly in the hidden history of women of color, so the real question is why hasn’t anyone done this in this way before now?
I can’t count how many times I have been at a restaurant or a party with a group of open-mouthed, astonished faces as I shared stories of her life. Aghast, shocked, surprised. Without exception the reaction is, “Wow, I never knew that about her. What a life! Why don’t I know that about her?” Why indeed? We can’t even begin to fathom how many other hidden stories are out there that must be excavated and shared. The least I can do is bring to the surface the one that I have come to know. I think of our efforts as the construction of the first pilings in the framework of an ongoing bridge, the bridge between black and white, the bridge between history and what many call herstory, the bridge to freedom, the bridge that connects us all as one people. Sojourner was keenly aware of devoting her life to building that bridge and there are still many stones to be laid. Sadly, quite a few stones that she so carefully placed have been knocked off in the last century. Don’t we have a personal responsibility to do what we can to build and rebuild where we may? That’s the real question. When we see a truth that hasn’t yet been told, isn’t it our duty to do so even if there are those who disagree or would do it differently?
And is there really anything to be afraid of? I’m pretty sure we all die in the end so what is there to fear? A good scolding? No, we welcome criticism, as it will guide us into more learning. No matter how much research, how much thought, how much outreach, how many workshops there will be criticism. And the question comes up, how much work is enough? Can you get it right ever? Well that’s sort of like the question, “When should we have a baby?” The answer is never and always. We have been working for the last two years to create a new folk opera about the life of Sojourner Truth. It’s not enough time and it’s the perfect time. We are doing so to the very best of our ability and, for the most part, our efforts have been met with enthusiasm, grace and welcome.
Our next foray into sharing the work takes place on September 16 at 7pm at Faison Firehouse in Harlem, NY in collaboration with the Harlem Opera Theater. We will offer a staged reading of Act II, THE EDUCATION OF SOJOURNER TRUTH IN NYC. If you are in the City we hope you will come. It has been a great joy to work on. Our new collaborators, Gregory Hopkins and Carol Brown and their great group of singers at Harlem Opera Theater have welcomed us, and our project with open arms. They have embraced us as fellow creators with like mind seeking to create a work that will inform, inspire and entertain. And that has been our experience, when we are working with artists those other questions never come up. The questions fellow artists pose are different. They ask things like, what is your vision? What is the musical idiom? How did you get Evelyn Harris?
I heard an edition of Fresh Air on NPR last week where Terry Gross was speaking with a scholar who had written extensively about the outlaws of the Wild West, like Jesse James and Billy the Kid. He was asked if he hated seeing Western movies that didn’t jive with what he had spent his life studying. He said that he loved seeing and hearing different points of view on the subjects he knew so well. He hoped that there would be many, many movies made about them in all different genres and that his research would inspire more filmmakers. Let’s all be like that guy! Isn’t that what we want? More art? What a world it would be if there were plays, musicals, operas, radio shows, cartoons, music videos, graphic novels, video games, iphone aps about Sojourner Truth and her many sisters. I want that world!
It all becomes clear when it works. A couple of weeks ago we presented the TRUTH education program at the Dunbar Center in Springfield, MA thanks to a grant from a generous sponsor. We told the story of Sojourner’s life and sang songs from the opera for a group of about 60 kids of color of all ages. Almost none of them had ever heard of Sojourner Truth. At the end of the show, after uproarious applause, one little girl shouted out, “When I grow up I want to be just like her!” In that moment the children, en masse, unbidden, ran into the arms of Evelyn Harris pouring out their love and admiration. Who knows how deep that inspiration will run in those young souls? So I have a question for you. Do you dare to follow your dreams?
Our next performance of the opera in development will take place in New York City on September 16, 2011 at 7:00pm. Old Deerfield Productions in collaboration with Harlem Opera Theater presents “The Education of Sojourner Truth, 1832, New York City, ” the second act from TRUTH, a new folk opera about the life of Sojourner Truth with music by Paula M. Kimper and libretto by Talaya Delaney at Faison Firehouse Theatre, 6 Hancock Place @ 124th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, NY, NY.
Visit: www.harlemoperatheater.org for tickets,
or call 212-592-0780
This performance will be followed by a culminating World Premiere with costumes, lights, sets and orchestra under the direction of Lanfranco Marcelletti at the Academy of Music in Northampton, MA on February 16, 17, 18 of 2012.
For more information visit www.truthopera.com
PHOTO courtesy of Linda McInerney