by Steven Pisano
"We Shall Not Be Moved," which played at the Apollo Theater this week following its world premiere at Opera Philadelphia last month, is an urban opera that riffs on the history of the radical political group MOVE. Established in Philadelphia the early 1970s by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart), MOVE is vividly remembered for several violent confrontations with the police - including a 1985 firefight that killed 11 MOVE members (including 5 children) and which destroyed over 60 houses.
Against this intensely violent background, composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director Bill T. Jones have written a contemporary story of urban struggle. Five teenagers, who have veered in and out of trouble, find their school has been closed, so they squat in an abandoned house in West Philadelphia - which just so happens to be the former MOVE headquarters from the 1980s. The house is populated by peaceful ghosts dressed in gray sweatsuits who dance through the house and try to guide the teens.
But the teens have also caught the eye of Glenda, the local beat cop. She wonders why they are not in school during the day, and eventually their interactions escalate until one day the police officer accidentally discharges her gun and shoots one of the kids. The young people grab her gun, then hold her captive, not knowing exactly what to do now that everything has suddenly spun out of control.
Leading the superb cast as the 15-year-old Un/Sung was Lauren Whitehead, who is not a trained opera singer but a theater artist and spoken word performer. She anchored the show from beginning to end.
As the police officer - a "brown girl" who "bleeds blue" - Kirstin Chavez sang with a strong mezzo voice, expertly conveying Glenda's multi-faceted character: the sympathetic Philly native who understands that kids have it tough on the streets, but who also stays true to her job.
Also turning in a standout vocal performance was countertenor John Holiday as John Blue. (The other three young men were named John Little, John Mack, and John Henry.) Holiday's performance at times started to overshadow the production, partly because of how well he sang and partly because his transgender character had a compelling story of his own that did not always fit within the overall story.
Helming the small but vibrant and exciting orchestra was conductor Viswa Sunnaraman, whose musicians made the music gleam with hints of Philly soul, rich jazz, and a strong theatrical backbone. The sets by Matt Saunders and projections by Jorge Cousineau excellently propelled the story along, whether utilizing a simple open frame to let the actors be the audience's focus without distraction, or projecting complex illustrations that provided back story that enriched the action unfolding amongst the performers.
At times, We Shall Not Be Moved felt a little too well-modulated and neat, like a report on the evening news. Parts of the story seemed to cry out to be as explosive and messy as the 1985 confrontation with the police, which still haunts the city of Philadelphia, and the continuing hard-luck despair of its inner-city youth. But, overall, this was an excellent new opera, deserving of a much wider audience.
More photos can be found here.