What started as a “hip h’opera” involving student poets in public schools has evolved into what will be perhaps the most daring show in Opera Philadelphia’s O17 festival this fall: We Shall Not be Moved, about modern-day displaced kids confronting the ghosts of the notorious 1985 MOVE bombing.
Details about the project have just been released in advance of the Sept. 16-24 performances at the Wilma Theater. The Philadelphia world premiere will be followed by runs at New York’s Apollo Theater and London’s Hackney Empire. The message from the creative team, most of whom are not from Philadelphia, is this: The opera doesn’t take a position or even dramatize the showdown between MOVE and local police that ended with the bombing that burned an extensive section of West Philadelphia.
“We’re not reopening the wound. The wound is present … and that’s true of so many things in American history,” said librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, 41. “It’s about how do we responsibly ask questions … in a past that’s never really lost.”
“First and foremost, this is … a musical theater experience with serious questions at its core,” said the much-honored director/choreographer Bill T. Jones, 65. “People are kind of nervous about it … and though we’ve watched many hours of documentary footage … the question is what is truth and reconciliation here.”
Those posing the questions are five teen runaways who take refuge in abandoned buildings on the original MOVE site (which was on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia). Each teen represents a particular aspect of modern urban life: one is transgender, another is white yet identifies as African American, and so on. All are haunted by the ghosts of children who died in the 1985 fire. Added to all that is a tough Latina police officer whose provocative lines include “The one with the gun has the moral high ground, no?” The operatic score is not likely to sound like Carmen. The eclectic composer is Haitian American Daniel Bernard Roumain, who has worked intensively with Jones in years past.
Modern parallels with police violence were almost accidental, said Joseph. The project began around 2013, when he was working with student poets, in conjunction with the City of Philadelphia and Art Sanctuary. He had a mandate from Opera Philadelphia: determine whether an operatic theater piece could be drawn from their work. What struck Joseph was the absence of active awareness of the past in a social-media generation that exists in the present amid a near-forgotten yesterday, not to mention a major historic event such as the MOVE bombing. He first drafted the libretto in 2014, and by the end of the year, he pitched the idea to Opera Philadelphia. Nobody flinched.
As much as the MOVE disaster has been examined, the librettist had some startling revelations from interviewing survivors. “There were white children who died in the fire,” he said. “MOVE is painted as a separatist group, which is probably right, but also segregated, which is totally wrong.” The libretto, in fact, wasn’t finished until March, which makes the final gestation of the piece incredibly fast by operatic standards. This process usually takes years.
Jones describes the project as being in “mid-stroke,” with creative-team members making their own lists of priorities. However, dance is likely to be prominent, if only because Jones is a choreographer, and he has hired Raphael Xavier, an alum of Philadelphia dance company Rennie Harris Puremovement, to supply more hip-hop elements. Joseph calls the approach “choreographic poetry … the idea that poetry can be spoken through the body.” Especially the ghosts.
Roumain wasn’t available for comment, but Jones pointed out that the term opera has been defined more loosely in recent years. The score is expected to have the gravity of opera but with surface elements of gospel, jazz, and African folklore. A video element is particularly in a state of artistic flux but may be used to set the historic context of the original MOVE tragedy.
Much will be decided after rehearsals begin in August, during which We Shall Not Be Moved will be in production along with four other productions: a Komische Oper Berlin production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute Sept. 15-24 at the Academy of Music, Kevin Puts’ Elizabeth Cree Sept. 14-23 at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, a Monteverdi/Lembit Beecher double bill titled War Stories Sept. 16-23 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and David Hertzberg’s The Wake World Sept. 18-25 at the Barnes Foundation.
The We Shall Not Be Moved company has roughly a month to pull together a hybrid work for which few clear templates exist. Yet Jones is tentatively confident: “We don’t often work in such a complicated palette. But I’m committed to keeping things smiling,” he said. “They [the collaborators] are ambitious and talented, and I think it’s going to be all right. Sometimes I’m very stern. The [set building] shop is doing three or four productions. But they’re very organized and the spirit is in a good place right now.”