By Jacqueline Parker
April 12, 2018
To Americans everywhere, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and its leaders resonated within our country a deep change in how we view others and what “equal rights” really mean. From sit-ins to nonviolent protests and everything in between, notable figures like Rosa Parks, Emmett Till and Claudette Colvin go down in our history books for their roles in sparking a radical shift in American culture. Perhaps most notable of all is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a minister and activist, remembered for his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and his role in various marches in the name of equality.
The story of King’s life, more specifically his last 36 hours, are the subject of Douglas Tappin’s I Dream, a Rhythm and Blues opera set to hit Charlotte in May. The opera, produced by Opera Carolina, will run from May 18 to 25 at Knight Theater. The performance is unlike anything you’ll see this year. It’s moving, it’s powerful and it’s innovative. In our uncertain times I Dream is a refreshing and imaginative adaptation of one of our country’s most influential leaders.
Tappin originally conceived the idea for I Dream and began writing in it while living in Atlanta. Having grown up in the UK, Tappin didn’t have as close an understanding about the Civil Rights movement the way many Americans do. He was fascinated and found a story that needed to be told. He said he felt like a compulsion, a “sense of having to write and tell the story [of King] came over me.”
While biographical in nature, Tappin took some creative license with the interpretation, as not much is known about King’s last day: “I was pondering what Dr. King had said… about climbing to the top of the mountain and seeing a future he may not share with the people he was speaking to.” This reimagined timeline results in a visceral interpretation of the story, set to an exciting soundtrack that will surely keep audiences glued to their seats until the very end.
With Tappin’s background in music, an opera was a natural platform for him to tell this story. While I Dream had many iterations over the course of its life, it was classic at the roots and layered with music styles like gospel and blues that were important to the historical base of its subject matter. And what better medium to chose than music?
Opera has a foundation in the common language. Performances like The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute were written in everyday styles that all people could understand and appreciate. Opera’s not all about fur-stole wearing ladies with clouds of perfume or those tiny little glasses (known as theater or Galilean binoculars), although you can probably find some of that at an opera. It’s not hoity-toity and just for an elite group of people. It’s for everyone. Music can give people a way to connect and it’s the fusion of musical styles, the acting, and the heart of I Dream that makes it special. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind opera that will blur the lines on what you thought you knew.
“What’s amazing about theater,” said Maestro James Meena of the Opera Carolina, “is that we can express ideas in the opera house that we might not want to talk about on the street… It [I Dream] works. It’s very contemporary and very exciting. It speaks to people on a very important level.”
That couldn’t be more true. With both the 50th anniversary of King’s death and the 55th of the March on Washington coming up this year, I Dream is extremely timely.
Tappin and Meena both hope that I Dream will spark some conversation, especially amongst younger opera-goers. “MLK is a name you see on streets. A lot of the importance of that is lost on people,” said Meena. “It’s living history. This will stimulate reflection and encourage people to go back and read more and learn more.”
In moments of upheaval, everyday people can do extraordinary things. King’s story, Tappin explained, is about “normal people who didn’t turn a blind eye. They were willing to take risks in order to make the world a better place for everyone.” As an artist Tappin felt an “obligation to make a statement, to challenge audiences and push back preconceived ideas and motions” about what it really means to human. Because, at the end of it, that’s what this opera is about: humanity.
“It’s genuinely possible to love others, even if they are hating you,” Tappin said. He is hopeful that audiences will leave with that message. “There’s good in humanity that can change the world.”
Catch I Dream in Charlotte on select dates from May 18-25 at Knight Theater.
*Opera Carolina is a proud ad partner of CLTure.org.*