Mt. Holyoke’s Chapin Auditorium might have seemed an unlikely venue for an important local opera premiere, but Dark River: The Fannie Lou Hamer Story received an excellent performance Friday night. Music and libretto are by Mary Watkins, of Oakland California, and the presenters were Northampton’s WomenArts and the college’s music department with conductor Ng Tian Hui presiding over the student orchestra augmented with faculty and guest musicians. The 16 singers who cycled between lead and chorus roles were a similar mixture of talent local and distant, some with international careers brought in from NYC and Boston.
The overall achievement was superior, if not Met level, and some performances were outstanding. Local artists included UMass Amherst voice major Robert Stahley, who a few weeks ago stole the show in a lead role in that university’s production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. (Last year he sang in Eric Sawyer’s Garden of Martyrs, reviewed here, and he will be giving his senior recital in Amherst’s First Congregational Church on April 26th.) I was especially impressed by NYC-based Andrea Chinedu Nwoke, who played the Dark River lead, and New Bedford native Philip Lima, who played her husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer. But their distinction was not really different from the others.
So who was Fannie Lou Hamer (Hay-mer; 1917-1977)? She was a small but not minor player in the fight for equal rights for African-Americans. Her moment in the spotlight occurred 50 years ago this June when she spoke at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, in Atlantic City, refusing to accept a compromise offer, uttering on national broadcast “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” and convincing the Democratic Party of the rightness of seating the entire Mississippi Freedom delegation.
Born to a sharecropper family on a white-owned plantation in the Mississippi delta, she questioned as a child why she could not go to school like the white girls. She never had formal education beyond the 6th grade, but her intelligence and sense of justice propelled her to enter the fight for equality in the 1960s, markedly after the 1958 murder of Emmett Till, to gain equal access to the voting booth through encouraging black registration. In her life she suffered many of the racist experiences of the time: forced sterilization, police beatings, destruction of her property when she and her husband managed to acquire their own farm, and the death of her daughter as the result of refusal of care by a white hospital [this Wiki has more] The life of a determined individual who deserves a greater place in American consciousness propelled Mary Watkins’s belief that this opera needed to be written and composed; in 2009 it had a six-concert première in Oakland, one of which was attended by acquaintance and WomenArts ED Martha Richards. That production was small-scale, so this one represented a step in the move toward the opera house.
Directed by Darryl V. Jones (MFA from BU), who also did the 2009 premiere, the production was creative in dealing with the limitations of a ballroom-style hall with a small stage unable to accommodate drops, flies, or sets. The orchestra was seated upstage, with spare chairs for nonperforming singers to execute costume modifications. Some singing and acting took place on risers, while steps on the sides permitted aisle exits and entrances, helping the audience feel almost like participants. The 16 separate scenes of Act I and the nine of Act II featured period photographs, some of Hamer herself, projected with captions above the stage. It was easier to follow the decadeslong time differences and made the work progress like a biopic movie. I found it all compelling. I personally found the diction to be for the most part not just adequate but excellent, though an acquaintance said she would have appreciated supertitles. It is difficult to imagine the projections being replaced by sets and the pauses required for changes, however, and it is possible the impact of the work would be reduced.
Some audience members escaped at intermission, perhaps because of Act I’s frequent switching of setting and focus. They missed the compacter Act II, which led to the climax of the chant “Freedom Now” transforming into “Yes, We Can,” which connected the half-century-old events to own time. For me, and I sensed for many others, Watkins’s work was riveting, and handled well the shifts between the details of Hamer’s life and her political activism and its role in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, between the human struggles and tragedies that engage the heart, and the polemics and politics that engage the mind. Her eclectic classical-style music tinged with some jazz and including elements evoking gospel, hymn, and Negro spiritual tunes of the Civil Rights Movement era appropriately and effectively prepares, supports, or reinforces the text. The work could perhaps use further tightening, particularly Act I to reduce the number of changes and their potential to confuse the viewer; Watkins told me that she is not through improving it.