by Matthew Benusa
In May, 1985, the Philadelphia police dropped explosive devices onto the roof of the building occupied by the Black liberation MOVE organization. Fire spread through West Philadelphia. Six adults and five children were killed. More than 250 people were made homeless. “We Shall Not Be Moved,” a contemporary opera recently shown at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh, is the story of what comes after.
“We Shall Not Be Moved” begins its framed narrative with Un/Sung (Alexa Patrick) whose spoken word poetry guides the audience throughout the opera. Un/Sung introduces her four brothers: John Mack (Adam Richardson), John Henry (Ron Dukes), John Little (Chance Jonas-O’Toole), and John Blue (John Holiday). These five orphans have chosen radical acceptance, creating a family of unconditional love despite their experiences.
The family finds their school closed one day due to austerity measures, and a man attacks John Blue on the street. They fight back. The man pulls a gun on John Henry. John Blue, having no choice but to protect his brother, shoots and kills the man. Without public support and facing the violence of the law, the family is cast out. They flee together to West Philadelphia and make a home at 62nd and Osage, the site of the MOVE bombing.
After moving in, Un/Sung and her family find notes in the house from the OGs—the spirits of those who were killed and who haunt the site of the MOVE home. The four ghosts are echoes of the past, of the five children killed by the Philadelphia police; the ghosts are also a mirror of a near future for the family.
The five teenagers are found squatting by a cop. Glenda, the police officer (Kirstin Chavez), calls for backup after failed attempts to convince Un/Sung she should be in school. The brothers come to Un/Sung’s defense. John Henry is shot by Glenda, but the family acts quickly to disarm and trap her.
A brooding second and third acts leave us dreading and anticipating the family’s inevitable fall. There is no coming back from what’s been done, despite desperate pleas. The fears of police and carceral violence are almost too much to bear for the brothers and Un/Sung.
The libretto, written by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, is a tonic for a learned history of Civil Rights that ends in 1968. The fight for public investment for the impoverished and for the law to stop killing people for the color of their skin is a fight that continues today. Civil Rights did not end with the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, or Fred Hampton, and “We Shall Not Be Moved” makes that clear.
With music by Daniel Bernard Roumain and direction and choreography by Tony Award winner Bill T. Jones, “We Shall Not Be Moved” challenges preconceived notions of what an opera can be. The score mixes elements of jazz, gospel, R&B and classical opera. The scenic work includes lighting and video projection onto translucent set pieces, and the OGs choreography stole the show.
“We Shall Not Be Moved” is ambitious—-the show asks the audience to stay and watch this tragic narrative play out. The audience must engage with its novelty and follow to an inevitable end. The experiments in operatic form pay off, and the risks in the libretto’s narrative structure require patience, but ultimately work. The challenge to understand the play’s politics is there to be understood, as long as you’re willing to hear out the people who know.
Recordings of “We Shall Not Be Moved” are available on the Pittsburgh Opera YouTube page.