Three years ago, accolades rained down on Long Beach Opera’s world premiere of Anthony Davis and Richard Wesley’s The Central Park Five, a work that bagged Davis the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music. And while director Andreas Mitisek’s staging was far from elaborate, his projection-heavy concept was sufficient to invoke the milieu of a tabloid-tagged NYC, where in 1990 five innocent boys went to jail for a brutal attack on a female jogger in yet one more case of young men of color getting the shaft — from police, from the judicial system, from the media, and from pre-presidential Donald Trump, who used his considerable resources and influence to push for the convictions despite pesky details like the fact that the only DNA recovered from the victim failed to match any of the accused.
This time around, the story and music are the same, but they play out on a set-free stage, an absence obvious even to those who didn’t see the original production. And this is just one of the missed opportunities that plagued this version of The Central Park Five.
But let’s start with the good. Reprising their original roles as three of the Five, Cedric Berry, Orson Van Gray, and Bernard Holcomb are joined by newcomers William Powell III (who’s got particularly big shoes to fill in a role originated by Derrell Acon) and Ashley Faatoalia, all of whom excel as individuals — and, most importantly, as a unit, whose clarion five-part harmonies imbued even monosyllabic bursts with formidable emotion.
In fact, there’s no quibbling with the cast top to bottom. This is the lineup to be featured on the overdue, in-progress cast recording of The Central Park Five, and they’ll make Davis & Wesley proud.
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.
Surprisingly, Jordan High School’s newly renovated auditorium was an acoustic step up from San Pedro’s Warner Grand Theatre, site of the premiere, where the orchestration sometimes buried the vocals. Neither space is designed specifically for opera, but with the orchestra sharing the stage with the vocalists at Jordan, LBO managed to nail the sound mix, with Anthony Parnther conducting his small orchestra to perfection.
However, one look around the auditorium revealed a curious failure to capitalize on an obvious opportunity. As LBO notes, “The performances taking place at a high school theater are significant in that the real-life protagonists of the opera were between 14-16 years old at the time of their arrests and convictions.” Additionally, with Jordan located in perhaps Long Beach’s most racially-mixed district, one might expect the audience for this Central Park Five to be more strongly represented by people — particularly young people — on the losing end of White privilege than your typical opera crowd. Instead, the audience was 90% White with a median age of 50+. Considering that the auditorium was filled to well under capacity (even taking into account COVID spacing that may or may not have been a factor), and that (according to LBO CEO Jennifer Rivera) 9th District Councilmember Rex Richardson “brought a hundred young men from Jordan High School to see the [original] production, and it was really, really moving for all of us to have all of these young high-school kids who hadn’t seen an opera before coming to see the show,” it seems somebody in LBO’s marketing/outreach department dropped the ball.
But those who did come likely left scratching their heads about what they saw. With a complete lack of sets, many stretches that featured acting in the original production were reduced to vocalists standing in place staring vacantly from the stage or referencing action that simply did not exist this time around. And without the erstwhile projections of New York Post front pages and CNN screencaps, The Central Park Five’s closing message that today, three decades removed from the wrongful convictions, we continue to live in a world where justice doesn’t mean the same thing for Whites and people of color is blunted, even if the now-exonerated Five’s hopeful closing declaration that “The world is ours / We’re still here” is haunted by the unresolved hover of Davis’s final notes.
The Central Park Five is important less as historical dramatization than as a window through to view both past and present with an eye toward making a more equitable future. Unfortunately, Long Beach Opera’s second bite at the apple missed an opportunity to bring that message home.