Oral History at Opera Philadelphia

On September 16, 2017, Opera Philadelphia will premiere We Shall Not Be Moved, a new opera by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director/choreographer Bill T. Jones. The production is an outgrowth of Hip H’opera, a partnership between Opera Philadelphia and Art Sanctuary, which launched in 2007 to engage Philadelphia high school students in creative projects geared toward self and community reflection. “We Shall Not Be Moved was formed out of the poems written by [those] students,” says Michael Bolton, Vice President of Community Initiatives for the opera company. The story it tells is rooted in moments of deep conflict in the history of the city.

“The opera is informed by a tragic moment in Philadelphia’s past, while suggesting an alternative, more hopeful future through the eyes of its young protagonists,” says Bolton. Set in the immediate aftermath of the School Reform Commission’s 2013 vote to close twenty-three Philadelphia public schools in an effort to reconcile a substantial budget deficit, the production traces the experience of five students affected by the decision. “On the run after a series of tragic incidents, the . . . teens find refuge in an abandoned, condemned house in West Philadelphia. The home sits at the exact location that served as headquarters of the MOVE organization when, in 1985, a standoff with police infamously ended with a neighborhood destroyed and eleven people dead, including five children.” We Shall Not Be Moved charts the history of the space and explores the immediate uncertainty for the teens, ultimately, says Bolton, “ending on a hopeful note of healing and resolution.”

As part of the development of the project, in spring 2017, Hip H’opera students began an effort to collect oral histories of some of the individuals who were directly impacted by the two historical benchmarks of the show. “As many opera attendees may be unfamiliar with the 1985 police bombing of MOVE headquarters, or the 2013 School District of Philadelphia budget crisis, these oral histories will educate, inform, and provide further context to the historic events referred to in We Shall Not Be Moved,” says Bolton. “Hip H’opera students, in turn, will learn more about the city’s history, while learning valuable skills in researching, interviewing, and videotaping the oral history subjects.”

Working closely with Lil Filmmakers, Inc., a media arts organization that trains youth and young adults in media and video technology, and oral historian Abigail Perkiss, the students spent several weeks learning the process and practice of oral history and video production, researching the MOVE bombing and school closings, and reflecting on their own experiences of displacement, resilience, and community.

“It was important for youth to be at the helm of this oral history project,” says Janine Spruill, founder and executive director of Lil’ Filmmakers. “The youth voice was lost with the MOVE incident and with the closings of the schools . . . We Shall Not Be Moved is told from the perspective of displaced youth who were impacted by the bombing and the school closings. Youth in the Hip H’opera program now have the platform to speak directly to the people involved in both incidents. Hip H’opera students can use their own voice to give a platform to people whom the city has heedlessly silenced.”

This summer, the students will sit down with MOVE members, corrections officers, city residents, teachers, and students, to record their stories. The project continues through August, as the cast and creative team put the final touches on We Shall Not Be Moved. When the show opens on September 16 at the Wilma Theater, the oral history videos will be part of a curated exhibit at the city’s African American History Museum, with additional outlets still being explored. Following a world premiere in Philadelphia, both the oral histories and the show will move to the Apollo Theater in Harlem and the Hackney Empire in London, England.

For Jalen Mitchell, a senior at Mastery Charter School’s Lenfest Campus and one of the student leaders of the Hip H’opera program, the oral history project has opened up avenues that he had never dreamed of. As a young African American man, he says, taking part in this effort has transformed the way he thinks about the history of Philadelphia and his place in it. “Opportunities like this need to be brought to more people, especially kids. It would have a staggering effect on how we understand and experience the world around us.”

Abigail Perkiss is an Assistant Professor of History at Kean University in Union, NJ and the Vice President of OHMAR.