It isn’t so much the lobby pictures of the more known freedom riders —Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), James Farmer, John Lewis, Diane Nash, etc.— but the faces of the lesser knowns or unknowns that you will likely carry with you as you leave Studebaker Theater. Composer/librettist Dan Shore’s world premiere opera Freedom Ride is more their story.
Soprano Dara Rahming as Sylvie Davenport is the everywoman character who brings us into the heart of this tale. She’s not unlike the women who became Communists in the 30’s because of a dance floor born crush. Big sister, daughter, friend, and ultimately someone who wants to make a difference, Sylvie eventually gets on the train that will launch her as a Freedom Rider. She will be jailed for sure, and possibly beaten or killed. In this writer’s view, it is because Sylvie is as messy and human as most of us are, and without trappings of heroine, that she becomes the Freedom Ride bus ticket we all get by Shore’s opera. You bet we would have hopped on board!
It’s a chariot, actually, that Sylvie and her fellow church goers know they will be riding, and that they sing about. It’s not the traditional gospel tune Ride The Chariot To See My Lord that the ensemble and soloists sing, but rather something more operatic in style. Gospel music, spirituals, ribbons of New Orleans wedding or funeral marches, and even soulful klezmer are used liberally to spice this opera score. We also hear spirited outbreaks of duets and trios, and more than one notable soprano aria that conveys a primary emotion of anger.
Chicago Opera Theater Enlists Local Talents
Longtime fans of Chicago Sinfonietta can be pleased to note that they had the goods to deliver, as did the crowd-pleasing children’s choir talents culled from Disney II Elementary, Disney II High School, Francis W. Parker School and Senn High School. There are a dozen stars in this opera—and stars they all are— who will send you scrambling to your program book to find out where else you might have seen them. One special mention—it strikes this writer that if Baritone Robert Sims as Clayton Thomas were not so magnetic right from the gitgo, the entire production would be a soggy noodle. He commands the stage, much as he commands a lead role in the story.
We feel Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya’s touch throughout——not only from her baton, but also, as we read in the program, from the nurturing role she has played helping Shore bring this world premiere to life. In this writer’s view, we also are also always feeling Director Tazewell’s touch that seems to insist we keep our eyes on the prize – the Freedom Fighters’ story --and hear the music. It starts with the ensemble opening of walking to the front of the stage and looking directly at us, witnessing us bearing witness. SPOILER ALERT! And most of all, it’s Tazewell’s collaboration with Projection Designer Rasean Davonte Johnson to end the opera with a collage of the real-world Freedom Riders’ prison mugshots that reaches deep into our souls.
Chicago Opera Theater’s Freedom Ride –on so many levels— has the feeling of history. We learned from the opening announcement there were Freedom Riders among us in the audience. How fortunate for all of us to be reminded of their work in these times when profiles in cowardice rule our days. For anyone who has logged a moment or more in one or another struggle for social justice, Freedom Ride is a poignant reminder of what brought you to the dance.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Sylvie Davenport - Dara Rahming
Leonie Baker - Whitney Morrison
Georgia Davenport - Zoie Reams
Russell Davenport - Tyrone Chambers
Rev. Mitchell - Cornelius Johnson
Clayton Thomas - Robert Sims
Ruby - Kim Jones
Mae, Chorus - Samantha Schmid
Gloria, Chorus, Georgia (Cover) - Leah Dexter
Frances, Chorus - Morgan Middleton*
Marc, Chorus - Blake Friedman
Tommie, Chorus, Clayton (Cover) - Vince Wallace
Chorus, Leonie Baker (Cover) - Joelle Lamarre
Chorus, Russell (Cover) - Cameo Humes
Reverend Mitchell (Cover) - Curtis Bannister
Chorus, Mae (Cover) - Kristina Bachrach
Chorus, Marc (Cover) - William Ottow*
Chorus, Tommie (Cover) - Keanon Kyles
Chorus, Gloria (Cover), - Francis (Cover) Beena David
Conductor - Lidiya Yankovskaya
Director - Tazewell Thompson
Scenic Design - Donald Eastman
Costume Design - Harry Nadal
Projection Design - Rasean Davonte Johnson
Lighting Designer - Robert Wierzel
Assistant Conductor - Kedrick Armstrong
Chorus Master - Adrian Dunn
Sunday, February 16, 2020
At 3:00 PM
The Studebaker Theater
410 S Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60605