- Greggory Moore
By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist
In 1990, five boys went to jail for a brutal attack on a female jogger in Central Park. Problem is, they didn’t do it. Or that’s one of the problems. Another is that this was yet one more case where young men of color got the shaft ― from police, from the judicial system, from the media.
The Central Park Five
Saturday (June 22) at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday (June 23) at 2:30 p.m.
Cost: $49 to $150; student rush tickets $15
Details: (562) 432-5934; LongBeachOpera.org
Venue: Warner Grand Theater, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro
And from Donald Trump, who used his considerable resources and influence to push for the convictions, never mind pesky details like the fact that the only DNA recovered from the victim failed to match any of the accused.
Thirty years after the attack, with those boys now middle-aged men still struggling to come to terms with their experience, The Central Park Five not only documents this high-profile miscarriage of justice, but it also invites us to consider what ― if anything ― has changed when it comes to race relations and jurisprudence in the United States.
The Central Park Five opens not with singing but with words projected on a screen:
They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that this case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.
The quote is Trump’s, from 2016 ― after the DNA was matched to a man who confessed to the attack, after the State of New York paid the Central Park Five $41 million as a settlement for their wrongful conviction. And all that evidence he mentions? Nothing but largely inconsistent confessions made by scared teenagers after hours of interrogation with no lawyer in sight, confessions they recanted shortly thereafter. No victim ID. No witnesses. No incriminating physical evidence.
Composer Anthony Davis and librettist Richard Wesley are clear from the start: The Central Park Five is not merely the story of the Central Park Five; it’s a tale of two worlds ― one of white privilege, one for those on the darker end of the spectrum. In Davis & Wesley’s hands, Trump is the ultimate poster boy for and promoter of the oppression that results from white privilege, while the Five are paragons of those living in its shadow.
That shadow is so dominant in The Central Park Five that the first solo is given to a white man, Zeffin Quinn Hollis, playing a character the program labels as “The Masque” and who also serves as a police interrogator. Acting as something of a Greek chorus for white privilege, The Masque rues the condition of New York City, blaming the angry animals who “wear their clothes in strange ways” and “have babies they do not know.”
In Harlem, meanwhile, the soon-to-be Central Park Five ― Antron (Derrell Acon), Yusef (Cedric Berry), Raymond (Orson Van Gray), Korey (Nathan Granner), and Kevin (Bernard Holcomb) ― are just boys. Neither animals nor angels, they are looking for sunshine in the shadows. “They tell me in school how big the world is. That’s their world; it ain’t mine.” The Five’s world is the block, the neighborhood ― and since that’s all they have, they try to own it. This may include a bit of mischief, but nothing like the atrocity for which they are about to be robbed of the rest of their youth.
The remainder of The Central Park Five juxtaposes their interrogation and trial with the institutional realities that hold far more sway over their fate than truth. Those realities include a criminal justice system that has prejudged the boys and a complicit mass media, both sectors deftly pressured by Trump (Thomas Segen), self-styled New York royalty, to secure a conviction regardless of the facts.
Mitisek’s staging relies heavily on projections ― black-and-white snatches of inner-city architecture, color-saturated interiors of Trump Tower, New York Post front pages and CNN screencaps ― which play across nine rectangular screens (including five mobile doors that rearrange themselves almost constantly) and freely bleed against the back wall. Coupled with Dan Weingarten’s expert lighting (which really comes to the fore in Act II), visually The Central Park Five stays interesting despite few additional scenic elements (although there is that memorable gold-plated toilet Trump regally rides onstage after intermission).
Musically, Davis’s eclectic score often calls to mind Gil Evans-era Miles Davis (e.g., Porgy and Bess), while selectively picking spots to incorporate subtly effective electronic elements and evocations of the musical milieu of late ’80s urban culture (including a direct melody quote of Parliament’s classic “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)”). Davis shows no fear of negative space, occasionally pausing completely to leave us ― like the Five ― completely in the dark.
Despite orchestration that sometimes buries the vocals (the Warner Grand was not designed with opera in mind), The Central Park Five is extremely well-sung, with each performer perfectly matched to his/her part. Without a single aria to be had, standout moments (such as mezzo-soprano Jessica Mamey’s adroitly going back and forth with Diana Morgan’s flute) are rare. Even the members of eponymous quintet rarely sing solo; rather, they make their mark as a unit, often with clarion five-part harmonies that imbue even monosyllabic bursts with formidable emotion.
With so many big themes in play, Davis & Wesley can be forgiven for never really distinguishing any of the Five as individuals, especially because in both the press and public imagination they were/are only “the Central Park Five.” As the guilty verdicts come in and haunting notes lament what has befallen “one more forgotten man child in an unpromised land,” we think only of the collective ― and not just these boys, but all the so-called “animals [and] monsters” denied their fair share of the American dream based on class and culture and skin.
“The world is ours. We’re still here,” sing the Five, now free and alive in the 21st century, the misdeeds done to them in darkness now exposed to the full light of day. “We’ve made it all the way back, and we’ve finally come home.” It seems The Central Park Five will end on a measure of hope.
But as unresolved notes hover in the air, a last projection flashes: a 2015 CNN screenshot noting that no charges would be filed in the death of Tamir Rice, an unarmed 12-year-old black boy shot at point-blank range within one second of initial contact by a white officer who ― as video evidence makes amply clear ― made no effort to ascertain whether Rice was actually a threat.
It’s deceptively easy to highlight progress made during the three decades since the Central Park Five were thrust into public consciousness. Look at pop culture! Black billionaires! Barack Obama! What more is there to say?
But plus ça change. Donald Trump is president, and by any statistical measure people of color have yet to attain anything like equal footing in the Land of the Free. Not economically. Not educationally. Not judicially. And with the proliferation of video recording, we need do nothing but open our eyes to see that police are not protecting and serving without prejudice. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Long Beach Opera’s latest world premiere is more than mere historical dramatization. The Central Park Five is a window through to view both past and present with an eye toward making a more equitable future. This is the only way to make America great ― in a way she never was.