by Steven Pisano
(All photos by Steven Pisano.)
On Saturday night, the Apollo Theater presented "Soundtrack '63," a production of Soul Science Lab based in Brooklyn. Using a rich gumbo of archive film footage, photographic slide shows, and live musical performances, the show explored black history in this country from the forced transport of slaves in the 18th century, through the Civil Rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties, to today's Black Lives Matter and "I Can't Breathe" protests.
Soul Science's creative director Chen Lo believes that it is vitally important to keep black history fresh in young people's minds according to the Ashanti principle of sankofa--"Seek the past to understand the present and build for the future." For Lo and musical director Asante Amin, this means remembering important landmarks in black history, and the best way to remember them is through music. A 13-musician orchestra and a quartet of knockout singers--Keisha Gumbs, Moses Gardner, Karyn Porter, and Matthew Thomas--kept the stage electric with first-rate music throughout the night.
Among the highlights of the night were Lo's solo rap retelling the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who in 1955 was beaten, shot in the head, then dumped in a Mississippi river because a 21-year-old white woman claimed that he had whistled at her--a claim that many years later she admitted was false. The case is still remembered as a lightning rod in the Civil Rights movement, not only because the killers were acquitted, then admitted their guilt (but were protected by double jeopardy), but also because Till's mother insisted that her son's mutilated and bloated body be seen during an open-casket funeral, with pictures appearing in the media that helped mobilize people for the marches and bus boycotts that began later that same year.
A section on Malcolm X featuring documentary film of the eulogy by the actor Ossie Davis, calling Malcolm X "our own black shining prince," drew strong, emotional applause from the audience.
Guest performers included folk singer Rhiannon Giddens, soul singer Leon Bridges, poet Abiodun Oyewole (co-founder of the Last Poets, a group of poets and musicians formed in 1968 that is considered by some as a precursor to hip hop culture), and rapper Rapsody. They performed politically oriented music by Marvin Gaye ("What's Happening Brother?"), James Brown ("Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud"), and Public Enemy ("Fight the Power!")
Of course, as well-conceived as this live production was, it was hard not to also think of similar multimedia presentations that have appeared on public television. Still, in the hands of Soul Science Lab, "Soundtrack '63" was a stirring and entertaining reminder of where we have been in this nation regarding race, and how much work still remains in order to finally fulfill Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream for all our citizens, "to get to the promised land."
More photos can be found here.