A director once told bass-baritone Derrell Acon, a veteran of “Don Giovanni” and “Aida,” that opera is only worth performing if “something monumental happens.”
That may be why Acon is excited about his new role in Long Beach Opera’s production of “The Central Park Five,” the story of a monumental miscarriage of justice, which will have its world premiere Saturday, June 15, at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro.
The year 1989 was in many ways a pivotal time in New York City. Violent crime was on the rise, so was the popularity of hip-hop—as well as the backlash against it. Spike Lee’s film on simmering racial tensions, “Do the Right Thing,” was hitting theaters and a blustery New York real estate mogul was fomenting anger after the brutal rape of a 28-year-old, female jogger in Central Park.
Acon plays one of five Harlem youths convicted of rape and other charges in “The Central Park Five,” which will also be performed June 22 and 23 at the Warner Grand.
The convictions of the men, who were boys aged 14 to 16 at the time, were vacated after another man later confessed to the rape. DNA evidence proved he had committed the crime.
The Long Beach Opera production, composed by Anthony Davis and directed by Andreas Mitisek, uses classic opera style as well as jazz and hip-hop to tell the story of the five youths who said they were deprived of food and sleep by police interrogators. They later retracted their confessions, which they said were coerced. They eventually won a $41 million settlement from the city after serving between five and 13 years in prison.
“This happened in 1989 but this is still going on today and a lot of the prejudice is still around now and seems to be resurfacing more in some regards,” Mitisek said. “We are not trying to do a documentary about these five people. That has been done really well. What we want to create is a work of art that is based on their experience.”
Davis, who has penned five operas, including X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, says music undergirds the story of the Central Park Five. He wound Boyz II Men-type riffs and other split harmonies into the opera and does a P-Funk parody as the actors are going into the park.
“They were definitely the children of this movement,” he said Thursday during a community conversation called Black Lives, the Arts and Mattering. “They were putting them in prison, but they were also putting a culture in prison.”
The opera runs at the same time Netflix is airing the series, “When They See Us,” a dramatization based on the infamous case. The original five are scheduled to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in a conversation scheduled to air on Netflix and OWN on Wednesday, June 12.
Acon, who plays Antron McCray and was a year old when the crime occurred, spoke of the production while waiting for the start of a weekday rehearsal in a deserted Fresh & Easy store in Downtown Long Beach, converted into a rehearsal space. To those who say they don’t want to pay to see another instance of injustice—or Donald Trump in an opera—Acon says give this one a chance.
“Opera has this amazing ability to catalyze these difficult subjects and discussions,” said Acon, who, five years ago, lectured on the Black American experience and studied Giuseppe Verdi in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship. “Opera enters and it helps tell their story and it helps us as audience members process the complication of accepting that we are all layered as human beings but we all deserve as Americans the same right to justice, true justice and truth.”
The characters include an assistant district attorney and the “Masque” who plays a “bad cop,” as well as a reporter and judge—forces who helped spin the story to ensnare the youths despite a lack of forensic evidence and wildly divergent confessions.
The interrogation is a central part of the work. The actors sit in chairs, each by a door frame meant to portray an interrogation room. They musically voice their confusion and despair:
Where’s my dad?
Where’s my mom?
I just wanted to go home
I told them what they wanted to hear
They said I could go home!
“You have these five young guys … living their lives in Harlem and they’re having their experiences and not all of [their experiences] are not beautiful and … then this event happens and it changes their lives forever,” said Acon.
Tenor Tomas Segen plays Donald Trump, the bombastic, publicity-hungry real estate mogul who took out full-page ads in the Daily News that helped fan anger toward the accused boys.
Acon said he was “very happy (Trump’s) contributions to this storyline are being presented because they’re atrocious.”
But playing Antron McCray, who said later his own father urged him to “tell the police what they wanted to hear,” even though it wasn’t true, was a different matter.
“His experience was so difficult, but also my experience as a young black man living in this country, and knowing many of the same prejudices … it’s a great tragedy.”
The cast was to meet in L.A. with the real Central Park Five on Friday in a lunch sponsored by the ACLU. Asked what he would say to the real Antron, Acon said: “A part of me doesn’t want to say much … I feel any level of sympathy they’ve heard is almost just excess at this point. I almost feel like having a sheet of paper and writing down all my lines from the opera. From operatic Antron.”
Long Beach Opera has delved into contemporary subjects before, including staging the controversial Death of Klinghoffer in 2014.
The Central Park Five first started as “Five,” a shorter version which played in Newark, New Jersey. Six years ago Davis spoke to Long Beach Opera’s director Andreas Mitisek, about the project.
“He thought it was done too quickly,” Mitisek said. “He didn’t have enough time with the librettos. I suggested we help him rewrite and deepen and expand the story and include more current reflections on it.”
Richard Wesley, who did the screenplay for “Uptown Saturday Night,” revised the libretto and they all did research, which included watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the case. The men did away with a chorus that was part of “Five” and deepened and expanded the characters of the five boys. They also expanded Trump’s role somewhat. Regarding that, Davis told San Francisco Classical Voice that he drew some inspiration watching Charlie Chaplin’s performance in “The Great Dictator.”
“What I want people to get out of this is if their liberties are threatened, your liberties are threatened,” he said while eating a quick Indian take-out dinner between rehearsals. “Basic freedom is at stake.”
The Warner Grand Theatre is located at 478 W 6th St., San Pedro. For more information or tickets, click here.