Were you there
Opera performance memorializes victims of police brutality
Bass-baritone Davóne Tines and pianist Michael Schachter closed out the “Run AMOC!” American Modern Opera Company festival at the American Repertory Theater on Monday, Dec. 18 with a stirring musical meditation on police brutality. “Were You There” implores the audience to remember victims in a time when death and violence are increasingly normalized and forgotten.
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Tines, Schachter and director Zack Winokur built the show from the idea of the musical recital. As a professional opera singer, Tines was perpetually performing solo shows in a tux, next to a piano, for a white audience. Here he appropriates and manipulates that structure to address his identity as a black artist. “I wanted to see how I could use my voice and platform to address social justice issues, particularly in terms of race,” says Tines.
Dressed casually, Tines and Schachter entered the stage unpretentiously. The set contained only the piano, a chair and an installation of hanging light bulbs. The bulbs represent victims of police brutality since 2015, with a primary focus on 2017. As Tines sang and spoke he approached the bulbs individually, igniting them, calling them by name and, in doing so, reigniting the audience’s attention to each victim.
The show began with a Handel aria and progressed into spirituals and protest songs including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and “We Shall Overcome.” It concluded with an audience-inclusive chorus of “Amazing Grace.” This progression was designed intentionally. Tines says, “You have to put people at ease before you bring them somewhere
emotionally impactful, before you serve up the truth.” When asked about his choice of spirituals, Tines emphasized that many were slave songs before they ever became incorporated into a religious setting. “Spirituals are artifacts,” he says. “They’re malleable life rafts.”
The trio expects the performance to change as it’s implemented in different places and for different audiences. In 2018, it will be performed at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee and at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival in Rockport, Massachusetts.
Tines is an exceptional, gifted singer. At many points in “Were You There” he had, and needed, no accompaniment. But to categorize him as solely a singer would be a great injustice. “Were You There” is not a concert. It’s a lament, a memorial and a catharsis. It’s a calm, measured shaking of the audience’s shoulders.
Ultimately, Tines hopes the production will serve as a reminder that these victims, and these problems, don’t disappear with the news cycle. He says, “I believe art’s most important function is to hold up a mirror to the society that made it.”