Reliving the March on Washington through opera

February 27, 2012 4:26:57 AM PST
As we near the end of Black History Month, a local production pays homage to the Civil Rights Movement in a way that you have likely never witnessed.

In our segment, "ABC7 In Your Neighborhood" we travel to South Shore, where one of the most important events in history is being set to the sound of music.

It was a turbulent time in American history. If there was one pivotal moment, many would say it was the March on Washington in 1963.

"The truth is people only know three things about the March on Washington, said Alan Marshall, author of "The March." "One: that it was in Washington. Two: that Martin Luther King gave his speech "I have a dream." And three: that there were 250,000 people there."

Marshall wants to change that and he's doing it in dramatic style.

The librettist, or writer, has turned the behind-the-scenes story of the leaders planning the march into the first civil rights themed opera. He says there is much to learn from the musical.

"There was a major rivalry going on between Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Dr. King of the SCLC in terms of publicity and tactics," Marshall said. "There was a major controversy around the speech of John Lewis. There was an archbishop who refused to give the invocation unless certain passages were changed. President Kennedy was under immense pressure by legislators to stop the march.

"There was the unsung hero of the march, Bayard Rustin, who organized the whole thing but could not be in public much because he was homosexual."

The writer turned to the South Shore Opera Company to make his words melodic.

The three-year-old singing ensemble formed as a way to provide opportunities for opera singers of color and to expose a South Side audience to the art form. The company is working in partnership with the South Shore Cultural Center and the Chicago Park District.

"Opera is universal," said Cornelius Johnson, artistic director of the South Shore Opera Company. "Everyone can enjoy opera. Opera tells great stories, beautiful music. Our last performance actually was "Italy Comes to South Shore." So we did an all Italian program which was wonderful."

This opera, simply titled "The March," boasts a diverse cast with characters portraying Doctor and Corretta Scott King, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Strom Thurman, John Lewis and a host of others.

There is even an appearance by Emmit Till, the Chicago teen who was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a white woman. In the opera, his spirit implores the leaders to press on despite opposition.

The South Shore Opera Company will be giving a free performance Sunday at the South Shore Cultural Center. It starts at 4 p.m. Seating is limited.

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