Exoneration explored with ‘Central Park Five’ at LBO

If you haven’t heard about Long Beach Opera‘s recently premiered opera, The Central Park Five, you may want to check the internet connection on the rock you’ve been hiding under. With a passel of press attached to the world premiere musical work, plus a separate series directed by Ava Du Vernay on Netflix, this extraordinary and startling true story is an important part of current social and political conversations. In addition to five real-life main characters who were jailed as teens for a brutal rape and exonerated an agonizing 13 years later, it also features a guy named Donald Trump, in his ’80s incarnation, as one of its most polarizing (and most funny) characters.

Let’s start with the original story: a female jogger was brutally attacked in NYC’s Central Park in April of 1989. The crime made international news, partially because of the vocal interference of high-profile characters like Mr. Trump, who, even then, loved to insert himself into whatever provided fodder for loud-mouthed platitudes and ham-fisted podium-banging. I was in college at the time, and remember the case well, as it was everywhere. But it wasn’t just ubiquity that made the case famous. It was the young ages of the alleged culprits, and the way this particular case captured the pulse of a frightened nation, as well as an especially race-divided city. This became the touchpoint for tensions that had long been accepted as normal, and the spotlight for law enforcement that had long used common but extremely manipulative techniques to force a conviction. Now, in a world re-examining such police tactics and everything else that #BlackLivesMatter responds to, this opera tells a powerful story that has found its moment.

Anthony Davis‘ score is immediately striking not only for its use of strong jazz styles throughout, but also for the way it allows for truly full-throated operatic singing, which is refreshing in a world where contemporary opera often depends on more pop-influenced or otherwise manipulated sound. Hearing well-trained, natural voices at their most glorious was a treat, and this cast was well-chosen for this objective. “The Five” are played by Derrell Acon (as Atron McCray), Cedric Berry (as Yusef Salaam), Orson Van Gay (as Raymond Santana), Nathan Granner (as Korey Wise), and Bernard Holcomb (as Kevin Richardson). These core players all possess extraordinary instruments and put them to good use in this emotional work, and when singing together in ensemble scenes, are often spectacular as a tight-knit group. Granner’s Act 2 monologue was especially potent, speaking as the one member of the group who was tried as an adult, and spent an additional six years of incarceration before the truth was known.

The cast of parents was played by four singers, with Joelle Lamarre expertly lending her exquisite soprano to play mother to two of the boys, as well as singing the role of the crime’s victim from offstage. Baritone Babatunde Akinboboye and tenor Ashley Faatoalia are local vocal heroes, well-known to most of our readers and superb as ever, and Lindsay Patterson nailed a moving courtroom outburst, pointing out that the defendants were all minors when they were interrogated — without their parents, and without legal counsel. Separately and together, the parents were as compelling and effective as the Five, and offered an adult perspective on the teens’ nightmare that is utterly heart-wrenching.

A terrible trio of “The Masque” (a combination detective/judge/etc., played by the always fascinating Zeffin Quinn Hollis), the certainty-bound NY district attorney (Jessica Mamey) and the aforementioned Trumpster (Thomas Segen) form a collective image of what mainstream society was like at the time: racially biased to an almost astonishing point, unaware of their own blindness, and hell-bent on “justice” — even if it wasn’t based in truth. These three, particularly Hollis and Mamey (perhaps because their material was more serious in nature), balanced a tricky mix of personal conviction and absolute loathsomeness, borne not of evil but of the socially-validated flaws of entitlement and blindness to anyone’s reality but their own. As Mr. Trump, Segen had a different sort of tricky task: capturing the organic high parody that is the daily reality of our current president. While Trump’s role is firmly rooted in the ridiculous (at one point speaking on the phone while stripped from the waist and straining on a golden toilet, which gives an indelible new meaning to the phrase “sitting president”), the role offers a rather apt glimpse into the early conniving and machinations of an already fame- and power-driven megalomaniac. For those of us who remember him in the 80s and early 90s, it was clear even then that his only view of the world was gaining more money and influence, while greedily grabbing as much attention as possible. Sadly, nothing has changed there, but that’s another conversation.

With a quote-peppered libretto by Richard Wesley, the “ripped from the headlines” feel to this opera was palpable, as if we were seeing the tale unfold for the first time. While there were some attendees (spoken to and overheard) who felt that the opera was difficult to follow without knowing the story ahead of time, it was nevertheless thoroughly engaging, drawing us into the thoughts of all involved and providing a timeless challenge to the way such crimes are handled by law enforcement, and by the media. Artistic director Andreas Mitisek (see video below), who directed the opera as well as designed the production and the accompanying videos, clearly had a firm grasp on the mood of the period as well as the fates of the characters. Conductor Leslie Dunner guided the orchestra through the sometimes complex and layered score admirably, creating the groove that this jazzy sound needed to communicate clearly. Maintaining a better volume balance with the often overmatched singers might have been desirable, but with the acoustic challenges of the venue (the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro), this is quite forgivable. Lighting designer Dan Weingarten and sound designer Earl Howard, both LBO favorites, were excellent as usual, building additional elements that became characters in their own right, rather than superfluous storytelling tools.

Go, now

As a side note, I hadn’t intended to do a formal review of this show, but rather to use observations as a starting point for a round-up of the impressive collection of reviews and media coverage that this production has already received. This is a worthy work that deserves the praise of so many esteemed publications, and while my previous feeling was that further expounding from our smaller blog might be simply unnecessary, this production is just too good to walk away from without raving about it. I write this in the wee hours, in the hope that anyone reading this on Sunday, June 23rd, might rush to the LBO website and grab any seat you can for the final performance at 2:30pm this afternoon. It’s a game-changer.

We’ve provided some links below for additional reading and research. Do look for the Netflix series, but also read a bit about this unforgettable case and the injustice it revealed in “the system”. This won’t be the last you’ll hear about the Exonerated Five, and until interrogation and other police methods cease to victimize the innocent out of sheer stubbornness and insensitivity, we all need to understand what that sort of moral gap can do to individuals, as well as society as a whole.

Supplemental links


Mark Swed’s review for The Los Angeles Times:
Anthony Davis’ opera ‘The Central Park Five’ goes where Netflix doesn’t dare

Review from The Washington Post

Zachary Woolfe’s review in The New York Times
and a preview piece by Michael Cooper:
This Summer, Opera Grapples With Race

Richard S. Ginell’s review for Classical Voice America:
Five Boys Wrongly Convicted, One Donald Just Wrong

Ava Du Vernay on NPR’s “Fresh Air” about her Netflix series

Read about the 2012 PBS documentary by Ken Burns

Central Park 5: Where Are They Now?“— AM New York, 6/14/19

Featured photo by Keith Ian Poliakoff, provided by Long Beach Opera

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