By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist
In 1989, a white jogger in New York’s Central Park was raped and beaten so badly she was administered last rites. Within hours, police arrested a group of teenagers — four black and one Latinx— and after grilling for hours without an attorney present, obtained confessions from each.
Despite conspicuous holes in the case — there were no witnesses, the victim had no memory of the attack, and DNA evidence from the rape kit did not match any of the alleged perpetrators — all five were found guilty of the attack and sentenced to between five and 15 years in prison.
Eleven years later, a convicted serial rapist and murderer claimed responsibility. Once his DNA proved to be a match, the convictions of the group that had come to be known as the Central Park Five were vacated, and in 2014 the State of New York reached a $41 million settlement of a civil lawsuit filed by the Five.
Despite many unanswered questions about all that transpired 30 years ago, there is no disputing that the aftermath struck profound chords in the public consciousness of issues such as race relations and judicial inequity.
For composer Anthony Davis, whose The Central Park Five has its world premiere this month at Long Beach Opera, the resonance of such chords inspire his artistry. Having already composed operas based upon the life of Malcom X and the taking of the slave ship Amistad by its human cargo, Davis didn’t need a lot of convincing when approached about creating an opera based on the Central Park Five. But despite the obvious fit of the subject within his canon, Davis admits the idea never occurred to him until he saw Richard Wesley’s libretto — even though he was living in New York when the attack and trials transpired. “Of course I was aware of it,” he recalls. “It was all over the news.”
That news did not reach Andreas Mitisek, Long Beach Opera’s artistic director, who was still living in his native Austria at the time. He was largely oblivious to the racial issues plaguing the United States — a luxury no African-American can claim. “I had some incidents,” Davis says, despite coming from middle-class academic background. (His father was Princeton’s first African-American professor.) There was, for example, the time he drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles with his wife at the time, who was white, and a black friend. “We were at a stoplight in LA, and a cop pulled up to us and asked my wife, ‘Are you OK?’” He chuckles. “I mean, ‘Are you OK?’”
By 2006, when Mitisek became a permanent U.S. resident, he was well aware of his adopted country’s racial inequity; and a decade later he was actively soliciting Davis for a project they might do together. Among those Davis proposed was an early version of The Central Park Five, which Mitisek found to be both dramatically compelling and as socially relevant today as it was at the time of the events it depicts.
“The Central Park Five is a work of art based on people that really experienced what we are portraying on stage,” he says. “[But] we are not creating a documentary of their lives; [rather,] we explore their story as one of many [such] cases that are still [taking place].”
The subject matter presents several unique challenges. Mitisek felt the preliminary version did not focus enough on the five teenagers as people, while Davis was wrestling with similar issues both textually and musically. “How do you handle five different people — and also make them individuals,” he asks rhetorically. The answer came in the form of fleshing out their story while taking advantage of the large number of protagonists by extensively employing five-part harmony.
One of those five individuals is Antron McCray, portrayed in The Central Park Five by Derrell Acon. Despite being only 31 years old, Acon, a Ph.D., has already lectured internationally on the black American experience and put together a solid body of scholarship on Blacktivism and the power of performative education. Not surprisingly, as soon as he became aware of The Central Park Five, he was angling for a role.
“I have made a very intentional decision to have my activism be a part of every aspect of my artistry,” he says. “Thus, it is a natural fit to have my work as an opera singer intersect with my interest in further familiarizing audiences with the black experience. […] Sadly, the themes of inequity and prejudice prevalent in [The Central Park Five] are thoroughly woven through my experience as a scholar, artist, and countless times over as a young black man in America. [… As] is also the case for most black folks I know, I have developed a deep anxiety around the police in all contexts. They are not on my side. The history between law enforcement and human beings who look like me speaks volumes. We are generally not the beneficiaries of the same service and protection afforded to our White counterparts. The mutual mistrust is the primary cause, for example, of the rampant police brutality visited upon black bodies.”
But Acon feels The Central Park Five is far more than a work of social relevance. “I see it as absolutely contributing positively and importantly to the operatic canon at large,” he says. “It very effectively employs standard operatic structures and idioms, while retaining an undeniably unique language in Davis’ use of styles from the world of black musical culture. It is a distinctly American opera.
One compositional conceit Davis considered but ultimately rejected was employing hip-hop in the score. But despite the omission, Davis feels the artform casts a shadow on the milieu of the time. “Even though I don’t directly use hip-hop in the opera, [The Central Park Five] draws from looking at that emergence, […] the period when hip-hop was becoming mainstream and the threat that posed to the white establishment, [as epitomized in] Pat Buchanan’s or Donald Trump’s statements about it [at the time]. In a way, the reaction or rush to judgment on the Five was really linked to a judgment on hip-hop, a judgment on the change in African-American aesthetic and community. In a way it was a condemnation of a whole generation. That was very interesting to me: that it was not only a political moment, but a cultural moment.”
A piece of American culture that has come into clearer view for Davis through working on The Central Park Five is how much the so-called criminal justice system has to do with profit. “[While working on the opera] I began to realize the role that prisons and policing play in terms of the American economy [and] how it sustains our capitalist system,” he says. “We still have slave labor in this country.”
For all the unpleasant social realities raised by The Central Park Five, Davis is aiming not only to humanize the issues in play but also to foment the possibility of a better future.
“My hope is that the audience identifies with the Five and [thinks about] what would happen if they or their children were in that situation,” he says. “[The Central Park Five] addresses how deeply embedded racism is and the need to confront and overcome it. At the same time, there’s kind of an uplifting element and a cathartic element in the opera, because you go through this trauma and, through these five people, overcome it. ”
The Central Park Five makes its world premiere at the Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro on June 15, with subsequent performances on June 22 and 23.