The multimedia theatrical celebration of the Civil Rights Movement connects the past to #BlackLivesMatter.
Stephanie McKee thought Soundtrack ’63 was right on time two years ago. The artistic director of Junebug Productions—formerly the Free Southern Theater—wanted to bring the multimedia presentation that looks back at the music and culture of the Civil Rights Movement to New Orleans in 2013, but when it plays this weekend, it will have the added resonance of the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“At the time that we first started our conversation, there were a bunch of 50th anniversary Civil Rights events that were happening, and that’s how I got connected to the creators [of the show],” McKee says. “A number of things hadn’t happened yet when we started talking about this show. The Trayvon Martin thing was still early on, the Tamir Rice thing had not happened, the “I Can’t Breathe”—all of that had not happened yet. It’s really interesting to me that we’re talking about movements, reflecting on movements, and it’s a sort of timeless conversation. I always ask, Is that a song we were singing then, and are we still singing it now? Sadly, it is, but there’s always hope.”
Soundtrack ’63 will play Saturday, Sunday and Monday in the Contemporary Arts Center Warehouse to coincide with Martin Luther King Day, and will include the show’s performers from New York including the live band with singers and rappers, but guests for this weekend’s shows include Troy Sawyer, Shaka Zulu, McDonogh 35 Senior High School Gospel Choir, Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets, and Sunni Patterson. To give the New Orleans shows additional relevance, Soundtrack ’63 has been tweaked to reference local Civil Rights leaders including the Free Southern Theater. “In that way, it takes on a element of place and celebrates New Orleans,” McKee says.
Rapper and educator Chen Lo is the creative director of New York City’s Soul Science Lab, and he created Soundtrack ’63 with New Orleans native Asante Amin because, as an educator, he wanted to connect the young people he worked with to their history. “I wanted them to know where they come from, why things are the way they are now, and what the potential for change is.” That basic goal helped to shape the show. Once he thought about young people, he knew that the show had to be visually stimulating and incorporated three video screens. They allowed Soundtrack ’63 to involve some star power that it couldn’t necessarily tour with, such as Dr. Cornel West and poet Sonia Sanchez. The video screens also present images and footage that in some cases illuminate a thought, while in others stand in ironic counterpoint.
“You hear songs that were hits from Motown juxtaposed with images of other things that were going on at the time,” Chen Lo says. “It forces you to listen to the music in a different way. Maybe there were layers to what the writers were trying to communicate.”
Because he wanted Soundtrack ’63 to speak to audiences today—particularly young audiences—he also included hip-hop. It’s his own musical comfort zone, but more importantly, “it’s where people are now off all ages,” he says. “Hip-hop is so pervasive in our culture. It brings our piece up to date.” Chen Lo’s quick to point out that the show isn’t a rap show, but hip-hop is one of the artistic flavors and one he considered necessary to telling the story of African-American struggle today.
Chen Lo wanted to make sure Soundtrack ’63 was a work of art and not simply a canonical presentation. When he selected music for it, he didn’t stick solely to songs that were popular at the time, though they’re an important part of the show. He also included “Where Can I Go” by Ray Charles—not necessarily a hit, but something that spoke clearly to the experience of African Americans at the time. “You’re in a segregated America and you see signs that say You can’t go here and You can’t do that because of the color of my skin,” he says. Max Roach’s “Freedom Now” suite (released as We Insist!) also plays an important role in Soundtrack ’63. “It’s peace. It’s protest, it’s prayer,” Chen Lo says. “Then there’s ‘Freedom Day,’ with Abbey Lincoln making lyrics with questions that I think get at the nature of the entire piece.”
Her questions feed into those that Soundtrack ’63 asks. “People say, We’ve come so far,” Chen Lo says. “Depending on who you are, you can argue the affirmative or the negative of that statement, but ask the question: How far have we come?” In his mind, that question helps foster valuable continuing conversation about what comes next.
As a country, it’s tempting to answer Not very far. Racial polarization has accompanied the Obama Presidency, so much so that the tendency has been to assume that he or his election caused the tensions, and that things have gotten worse. McKee suggests that what has changed in recent years is the technology to make it possible for us to know about acts of outrage and violence that went undocumented out of the public eye for decades.
“People have also got better at disguising things,” she says. “There are organizers on both sides. There are the organizers who are interested in dealing with injustice, and there are organizers on the opposite side and they have always existed. That’s why even after Brown vs. Board of Education, we’re looking at people going back and challenging things that have happened. That going to always happen. That’s part of the cyclical process that we as a nation will be in. As a world, even. That’s one of those things that just is. We can’t lose sight of the fact that there’s work to do always.”