Civil rights

The Fleeting Energy of Art: Chronicling a Civil Rights Milestone in Words, Music and Images

In 1960, an African-American sophomore attempted to attend the local public school, only to face venomous racist protesters outside the entrance and laws that prohibited black children from attending that elementary school. . Over the next year, amid continued protests, Ruby Bridges was forced to face the crowds every day with police escorts, only to attend her classes alone.

Portland jazz composer and musician Darrell Grant’s Step by step: the Ruby Bridges suite musicalizes this critical moment in American history, using it as a lens to view the national civil rights struggle of the time. As we have painfully reminded over the past two years, this struggle continues today. It was therefore welcome to see Grant’s exuberant multimedia creation return to Portland, where it was born, on April 1 and 2 in performances at the First Unitarian Church.

Step by step is more than a concert. Projected photos and voice-over statements from historical figures intermingled with Grant’s melodious, direct jazz. Performed by the composer on keyboards, an ensemble of Oregon jazz veterans, cellist Hasan Abualhaj, and backing vocals – all ably led by FUP Music Director DeReau Farrar – the music rose and fell in tune with the drama, passing sometimes from a vamp at low volume to facilitate listening to words: poetry, speeches, newspaper articles, reminiscences, etc.

American turn

These words provided historical context for the event described. Any piece of documentary or theater music must strike a balance between exposition – telling the story that inspired it – and entertainment. Step by step fortunately moves away from Wikipedia and towards the use of primary sources – words and images from the period it covers. But unless you’ve read Bridges’ award-winning 2000 memoir Through my eyes (which inspired Grant to compose its sequel) or another chronicle – or a fuller program note than the one provided during this performance – viewers might not appreciate its historical significance.

In 1960, three years after the famous Little Rock Crisis that brought federal troops into Arkansas to enforce court-ordered desegregation of legally mandated all-white schools, Bridges became the first African-American child to desegregate the Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, previously all-white. . His entry (escorted by federal marshals) and continued protests by white racists came at a critical time in the American civil rights movement. White parents pulled their children out of school, and all but one teacher refused to teach him. For the rest of that busy freshman year, Ruby was the only student in her sophomore class. His family faced reprisals, but his courage was widely praised. The incident was commemorated by Norman Rockwell in his famous painting, The Trouble We All Live With.

Bridges still lives in New Orleans and started a foundation that works to promote tolerance and fight racism. A statue of her now stands in the courtyard of her former school.

Grant’s Suite premiered at Reed College in 2012 and has since been performed elsewhere, including in Nashville, New Orleans and the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History in Washington DC. It was his long-awaited first performance in Oregon since his debut.

Do you say this

In the prelude, variations and an expansion of the witty “Let My People Go” accompanied a photo of WEB DuBois and a quote from his famous 1906 speech to the Niagara movement. “Step by Step” opened with a melody resembling a children’s playground sing-along, accompanying photos of 12-year-old Ruby at the school entrance and UPF Chief Minister Bill Sinkford, reading an admiring recollection of someone who saw her that day, resolved. The move ended with a catchy “I won’t look back,” spoken forcefully by singer Amber Schroeder.

Reverend Sinkford also made an effective reader of a Supreme Court opinion – no easy task! — in Chief Justice Warren’s unanimous opinion prohibiting legal school segregation in Brown v Board of Education, in that golden age when the Court briefly upheld the rights of the oppressed instead of, as it does today, the oppressors.

The show unfolds chronologically from there, with a moving choral lament (“Why Have You Abandoned Us?”) accompanying photos of the movement’s subsequent triumphs and reversals of fortune, including the white supremacist murder of Emmett Till. , the Little Rock 9, the Freedom Riders, the Mississippi police attack on peaceful civil rights protesters, the horrific Birmingham church bombing. (If these references are unfamiliar to you, check out any good history of the movement, such as the documentary Eyes on the prize or Richard Kluger’s book simple justicewhich focuses on the legal struggle.) Grant’s music effectively blended quotations from spiritual and biblical texts with smooth jazz.

Perhaps the most charming moment came in “Summer 1959,” which opened with soulful piano and cello before the rest of the band joined in. A recitation of the “rules” of white supremacy followed, unctuously declaimed in a white Southern accent (“Number 7: Never comment on a white woman’s appearance.”)

“Tell You This” brought a much-needed heat of anger to the choir and the band. It featured quotes from actual Jim Crow-era legislation in the Southern states – and, among other things, an implied reference to the Supreme Court’s shameful and factually unjustified gutting in 2013 of the landmark 1965 voting rights, which in turn helped bring about the last decade. unrepresentative and anti-African-American election results in all parts of the unrepentant South.


Hot on the heels of a contemporary racist chant (“2,4,6,8, we don’t want to fit in!”), a more welcome anger — the musical equivalent of John Lewis’ “good trouble” — fueled the optimal strutting instrumental “The Cheerleaders”, named after a group of black women who stood strong behind Bridges. His stinging lamentations were reminiscent, in the mind anyway, of Charles Mingus’s oddly amusing but furious “Fables de Faubus” written in the heat of that same difficult moment.

Keller’s electrifying performance of the sequel’s original climactic song, “Hold My Hand,” provided more highlights and the afternoon’s biggest applause. It accompanied Bridges’ recollection of the only supportive white teacher who helped her endure fierce opposition from white racists who picketed the school every day.

In the post-show talkback, Grant revealed that after the AfterIn Bridges’ original incarnation, he added a new penultimate song, “Come In”, inspired by a moment in Bridges’ memoir when she apparently tried to talk to belligerent racist protesters. In fact, she was praying for them.

I’ve never seen the original version (which also lacked the gospel choir and other vocal soloists), but here this pivotal addition turns the story climax of a passive Ruby being granted grace from a white savior to a protagonist with agency who finds redemption through merciful action: forgiveness in prayer. It transforms the subtitle of the suite into a double meaning, a verb as well as a surname. The conclusion “We Rise,” carried by the lyrics of Maya Angelou, closed the sequel with a stir and the jubilant audience rose to their feet.

Steps forward

Where Ruby bridged racial gaps, Grant does now. As much as I enjoyed Grant’s bubbly music, I suspect Step by step is even more valuable as a teaching vehicle, especially to white liberals like those who I suspect made up most of the audience. The combination of evocative music with Bridges’ own words and imagery, skillfully placed in historical context, helped bring us closer to imagining the lived experience of the inside. (The performance was actually funded under the auspices of the 2022 Marilyn Sewell Social Justice Conference, named after the former church minister.) Accompanied by a fuller program note and possibly discussion material, I can imagine a live or recorded performance. Step by step find a home in educational circles — except in places like Florida and Texas that seem determined to stifle any “unpleasant” subject matter that contradicts their historical accounts of white supremacy.

In this post-show lecture, as compelling in its own way as the concert, Grant also noted that other things have changed since he wrote it ten years ago, when Barack Obama was president and the neo-Nazi white supremacist movements, although among the most dangerous. terrorists in the country, were still flying under the radar of mainstream media and clueless politicians. The events in Little Rock and New Orleans “sounded like ancient history then,” Grant admitted ruefully. In the wake of deadly white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville and Charleston and beyond, and police brutality against black Americans from George Floyd to last week, Step by stepImages of bombed churches, police dogs and fire hoses thrown at peaceful activists seemed almost contemporary.

And while Bridges and others managed to help eliminate racist admissions laws in public schools, school segregation is actually worse now than it was half a century ago, Sinkford noted, thanks to white flight, right-wing Supreme Court edicts, and other systemic racism. That’s why artists still need to use what Grant called “the fleeting energy of art” to react in works like Step by step. “Art is where artists can bring difficult issues to the table,” he said. Many steps towards racial equality have been taken, including those described in the Ruby Bridge Suite. There are many more left.

In the decade since he conceived Step by stepGrant went on to create other musically more ambitious multimedia shows, such as The territory and the mighty 21 cards with great Portland singer Edna Vazquez, one of my favorite performances of 2019. (Still bummed I missed her Sanctuaries opera last year.)

Widely admired here for his generous political and educational efforts – building bridges – as well as his music, the Portland State prof continues to find creative and compelling ways to combine words and images, music and messages, to tell stories. that we all need to hear.

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