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Monday, June 17, 2019

F3Stage Review: The Central Park Five opera powerfully retells the true tragedy of injustice

Film Flam Flummox

Classical-style opera is generally associated with stories and, more often than not, works from many years ago. But the artform can also be used, and rather effectively at that, to tell contemporary stories, particularly those that navigate the often roller coaster gamut of emotion within human existence.  Such is the powerful case (no pun intended) with composer Anthony Davis and librettist Richard Wesley's take on the true tale of tragic injustice that befell the then-so-named The Central Park Five, currently in its world premiere production mounted by the Long Beach Opera.

Three decades may have passed since the five of the title--aged only 14 to 16, four African-American, one Latino--were wrongly convicted of the 1989 beating and rape of a white female jogger in New York's Central Park, but awareness of the story is probably even more widespread today than it was back then, thanks to Ava DuVernay's celebrated miniseries When They See Us, which began streaming on Netflix literally (and completely coincidentally) a couple of weeks ago.  But beyond also being the subject of a near-simultaneously released, higher profile project, this shameful blight in American history could sadly not more  be relevant to and reflective of the social and political climate of today.  Despite a glaring lack of concrete evidence, law enforcement was quick to criminalize young Antron McCray (Derrell Acon), Yusef Salaam (Cedric Berry), Raymond Santana (Orson Van Gay), Kevin Richardson (Bernard Holcomb), and Korey Wise (Nathan Granner), and forced them into false confessions without adult, let alone professional legal, counsel.  A voracious news media was all too quick and eager to go along with the narrative, with prominent figures amplifying the sentiment to even more sensationalistic and alarmist levels, including a certain brash real estate developer (played by Thomas Segen) still many years removed from his eventual perch in the highest political office of the country but already exhibiting and expressing his now-even-more-familiar blowhard attitudes and viewpoints on particular demographic groups.

The one glaring misstep in Wesley's libretto is that depiction of now-45, not in terms of accuracy but in falling into the trap of going for the cheap and easy joke; the second act opens with no less than him on a phone call while sitting on a golden toilet.  But as the term "operatic" is often applied, trafficking in broad strokes to convey a greater truth is a convention in the genre, and having an exaggerated, if cartoonishly so, 45 as well as an amorphous character billed as "The Masque" (Zeffin Quinn Hollis) representing, at various points, either the oppressively long arm of the law, public sentiment, or White Paranoia itself effectively depict the monolithic system that the five and their truth was (and, ultimate, far too belated exoneration aside, still are) up against.  Similarly, with the late exception of Wise, the one of the group who was sent to an adult prison, the five themselves are treated more as a collective than individuals, but so speaks to the larger point of how young men of color, particularly African-Americans, regardless of individual personality and circumstance, are viewed in the same ever-suspicious lens from all angles.

Director Andreas Mitisek's physical production further reinforces this notion in at once spartan and overwhelming fashion.  Doors and screens are often the only objects on stage with the actors, but they more than do their jobs practically and metaphorically, representing the various spaces, rooms, and cells and offering surfaces on which to project many archival video clips, images, and newspaper headlines, smothering the protagonists in their humiliating negativity and prejudice.  Cannily, Davis's score, which pulls as much from jazz influences as it does classical ones, also reflects the persistent tension between black and white, truth and untruth in his copious use of dissonance between the vocal lines and those played by the orchestra.  With the uniformly strong-voiced cast and the gifted musicians in the pit landing all the notes beautifully and memorably, the effect is appropriately jarring and discomfiting in the best way,  That applies to  The Central Park Five  as a whole, an overall beautifully composed and produced work that dares to powerfully remind of an uncomfortable case in recent history and underscore how the circumstances and atmosphere that led to such a tragic injustice are just as much, if not even more, overtly present in the here and now.

The Central Park Five composer Anthony Davis
and director Andreas Mitisek during the pre-show talk
(photo by Michael Dequina)

The Long Beach Opera's world premiere production of Anthony Davis's The Central Park Five will have two more performances, on Saturday, June 22 and Sunday, June 23, at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro.

(Special thanks to Long Beach Opera and Davidson & Choy Publicity)

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