Movement in Black, movement in Black, can’t keep ‘em back, movement in Black.
There’s real music in these words, whispered in a syncopated rhythm at the end of Lyric Fest’s newly released social justice film #SayTheirNames — Women of the Movement.
The words, from a poem by Pat Parker, become a kind of chant when spoken by Charlotte Blake Alston, taking on the rolling power of a locomotive, slow but inevitable.
To call #SayTheirNames a film doesn’t quite cover it. The piece, viewable free on YouTube, is 44 minutes of poetry, song, visual art, spoken word, and historical perspective that, gathered up, astonishes as a portrait of Black women past and present who have pushed forward U.S. social justice.
The project was conceived by Philadelphia soprano Karen Slack, a Curtis Institute of Music graduate and Astral Artists laureate, who had long wanted to work on a project larger than just performance. In recent months, since the Black Lives Matter movement took off, she says she has been asked to speak on panels about the intersection of race and classical music.
“And I said, ‘You know what? It’s time for me to speak about the things I want to speak about, rather than answering questions other people want to know about.’ ”
While researching the project, she hit upon on a revelation:
“I found that most of the social justice movements were started by women, and Black women in particular.”
Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Stagecoach Mary, Lucy Prince, Mary Pleasant, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Coretta King, Fanny Lou Hamer, Marian Anderson…
In the film, Alston recites these names and more than two dozen others, some more familiar than others.
“There is a lot of information in the piece that even I didn’t know” before undertaking the research, says Slack. “There is always more for us to learn, particularly for my generation and younger. Many of us don’t have that connection that our parents and grandparents have to the past.”
“I was blown away by all of these stories, the courage of these women,” says Suzanne DuPlantis, the Lyric Fest co-artistic director who worked with Slack as the film’s producer and director. “My hope is that other people will get it, will listen to this and respect this, and see it as much as any other important part of American history. It forces you to not just look at these women, but to look at what they were up against.”
The film delves deeply into the stories of four women: abolitionist Sojourner Truth, pioneering investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, civil rights leader Fanny Lou Hamer, and contemporary activist, lawyer, and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. We hear their words and learn of their work, finished and unfinished.
Augmenting the historical material are images by Lavett Ballard, a University of the Arts-trained artist whose work was featured on a recent Time magazine cover. Alston narrates and recites poetry. Slack sings, with Lyric Fest co-artistic director Laura Ward as pianist — in songs like “Bewilderment” by Florence Price, set to the Langston Hughes poem Prayer.
One particularly affecting sequence explores Wells’ reporting on lynchings ― only recently recognized with a Pulitzer Prize — by sometimes attending them.
“I had hoped such great things for my people generally,” writes Wells in a diary entry excerpted in the film. “I have firmly believed all along that the law was on our side and would, when we appealed to it, give us justice. I feel shorn of that belief and utterly discouraged, and just now if it were possible I would gather my race in my arms and fly away with them.”
And then, in a particularly poignant performance, Slack and Ward are heard in Nina Simone’s arrangement of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit.”
Some of the content is graphic, says Slack, and may not be suitable for some children.
But, she says: “I didn’t want to shy away from images that may be jarring — for people to see an actual lynching and see women being kicked and beaten.” The aim was to “lean into the truth of the situation, or there was no point in telling the story.”
The great creative stroke of the film is a performance by Slack and Ward of Taking Names by composer Jasmine Barnes on a text by Shana Oshiro. The song, commissioned for the film, has the shape and urgency of an operatic aria. Slack sings names of Black women who have died at the hands of police — some, like Breonna Taylor’s, well known, but many not — with Ward playing a menacing piano part and reaching into the body of the instrument to strum the strings eerily. It comes after an excerpt from a TED Talk in which Crenshaw talks about the brutality of police against Black women.
Slack notes that the activists profiled in the film undertook “tremendous risk and sacrifice” to do their work, which she says sometimes brings the feeling that she’s “not working hard enough.”
“These women are doing these incredible things, and I just think, ‘I’m not a person out in the streets marching.’ But through my art, through my advocacy of other artists, that is my way,” says Slack. “Now I am in a phase of constantly trying to explore and really do projects and things that have significance — telling the stories out there, not just Verdi and Mozart and Strauss.”
Slack hopes to grow #SayTheirNames into a live theatrical experience post-COVID-19. She sees the project as nothing less than core to who she now is as an artist.
Alongside her traditional operatic repertoire, she says she wants to add more current and relevant stories. “I want to be able to define the career I want for myself right now, and this is how I feel transformed,” she says. “This is who I want the industry to see me as.”
Lyric Fest hosts a free Zoom launch party and Q&A for #SayTheirNames — Women of the Movement with the film’s artists Sunday at 3 p.m. To register: LyricFest.org.