World-premiere opera explores race, identity, and violence in ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’

Spoken-word artist Lauren Whitehead as Un/Sung in 'We Shall Not Be Moved.' (Photo by Dave DiRentis for Opera Philadelphia.)

“No matter how quickly our news cycles go now, we are never far removed from our history,” said librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, one of the creators of Opera Philadelphia’s upcoming world premiere, We Shall Not Be Moved. Speaking the day after the tragic violence in Charlottesville, Joseph was referring both to the events of the weekend and also the bombing of Philadelphia’s MOVE compound, which is an integral part of this new opera’s story.

Transcendent, universal, and without easy answers

To develop a story about five teens on the run in North Philadelphia, Joseph worked for three and a half years with a stellar team: Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and director, choreographer, and dramaturg Bill T. Jones. The teens find refuge in West Philadelphia in a condemned house on what was once the MOVE compound. Joseph was inspired not only by the 30th anniversary of the MOVE bombing, but also by the Philadelphia School District crisis several years ago, in which dramatic funding cuts forced the closure of many schools. In place of easy answers, the opera posits difficult questions about race, identity, and violence.

The storytelling encompasses a variety of methods, including jazz, R&B, video projection, spoken word, and contemporary dance.

This show “is transcendent and universal in its modality and approach to the story, and it’s unapologetically black in subject matter,” Joseph says. “Part of the black experience is that the idea of the melting pot has always been part of our aesthetic. Hip-hop culture is based on funk coming out of James Brown. . . . Our music reflects past expression.”

Meet O17

We Shall Not Be Moved, which will run September 16 through 24 at the Wilma Theater, is the centerpiece of O17, the inaugural edition of Opera Philadelphia’s new annual season-opening festival. It’s co-commissioned and co-produced by the Apollo Theater and Hackney Empire and developed in partnership with Art Sanctuary.

O17, which will run September 14 through 25, will include performances of seven shows at venues like the Academy of Music, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, and Independence National Historic Park.

“The idea behind the opera festival is to take the various initiatives that Opera Philadelphia has become known for — bold new productions of the traditional grand-opera repertoire, groundbreaking world-premiere chamber operas, site-specific works that celebrate unusual spaces in the city — and combine them into one 12-day period that explores the future of opera,” explains Opera Philadelphia’s Frank Luzi. “We view Festival O as a civic experiment designed to transform Philadelphia into an urban stage where diverse audiences gather to share an experience and amplify human connectedness.”

Opera at the Fringe

O17’s We Shall Not Be Moved is also part of this year’s Curated Fringe Festival (the third year in a row that Opera Philadelphia has teamed with FringeArts). In 2015, ANDY: A Popera got its world premiere at the Philly Fringe; last year, the partners co-presented the Third World Bunfight production of Verdi’s Macbeth.

“The opera speaks to the spirit of artistic innovation and social responsibility shared by both companies and both festivals,” Luzi says. “Our plan is for this to be the first of many ‘crossover’ projects shared by the two companies.”

We Shall Not Be Moved runs September 16 to 24 at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia. Tickets ($50 to $100) are selling fast, and they’re available online or by calling (215) 413-1318. Find the full O17 lineup here.

Margaret Darby

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on September 16, 2017

Opera Philadelphia has been diving into community engagement for years. Michael Bolton has been working on projects with schools in conjunction with Art Sanctuary for more than seven years — and, you are right, Opera Philadelphia is not afraid of the new, the hip, and the wild. And they are still producing superb traditional operas.

David Devan and crew are to be commended for bringing a taste of opera to every part of the Philadelphia community. May their Festival O17 reap many rewards.