When you drop a pebble in a stream it forms concentric circles on the surface of the water. You could say that image symbolizes change — or, at the very least, disruption. Thus, it seems apropos that Oakland Opera artistic director Tom Dean designed the set for Dark River: The Fannie Lou Hamer Story with circles as a predominant motif. (One need look no further than word "river" to know it's a story of movement and change.) In Dean's set, brown spherical disks adorn a transparent curtain that's framed by cotton buds, all painted with curlicue stems and flowers as thick and white as an antebellum pinafore. Cotton represents a sordid past, and the curtain promises to open up to something new — starting on the day that a black woman from Mississippi decided to exercise her right to vote.
Though she wasn't a central figure in the civil rights movement, Hamer makes a perfect character for an opera. Born to sharecroppers, Fanny Lou Hamer (née Townsend) was the youngest of twenty children. She came up hard, forced to leave school after sixth grade and condemned to a life in the fields. At a young age she married fellow sharecropper Pap Hamer, moved to another plantation shack, and started a family of her own. Hard-scrabble beginnings helped Hamer get a thick skin (she's the person responsible for such quotations as "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired," a prominent refrain in Dark River) and a tender heart. She was known for speaking plain and constantly invoking the Bible. She was, in other words, the archetypal heroine of melodrama — one who, by suffering, becomes virtuous.
In this case, "melodrama" is a compliment. After all, what is opera but "melos" (i.e., music) and "drama" at their most extreme? Dark River starts off heavy, with the specter of Emmett Till (Hannefah Hassan-Evans) dancing behind the curtain while the cast members emerge with their pitchforks and rakes. They sing a haunting number about justice and remembering the past, which closes on a jazz chord. Then we're instantly shuttled back to a 1920s-era cotton plantation, where young Fannie Townsend (Bolanle Origunwa) plays patty cake with her sisters under the watchful eye of her mother Lou Ella (Jeannine Anderson). The narrative skips around a bit but mostly focuses on Hamer's activism in the 1960s, which began after she heard a sermon by Reverend James Bevel urging African Americans to vote. Mesmerizing soprano Raiña Simons stars as the adult Hamer.
Composer Mary D. Watkins and director Darryl V. Jones created Dark River as an ensemble piece, though it features several climactic moments of Simons singing by herself, often from a podium, usually addressing other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi, always framed by cotton buds. Simons vivifies the character, who apparently was a singer in her own right. She stares unflinchingly at the white cops and racists who try to bring her down, and at the Democrats who sneer when Hamer and fellow activists disrupt their 1964 National Convention. Dark River reaches its peak when Hamer delivers one of her most famous speeches to the Democratic Convention's Credentials Committee. "Is this America, the land of the free, and the home of the brave?" she asks, hitting a long cadenza on brave. "They burn us, they lynch us, they make our lives hell!" The weird hell is a protracted high note, beautiful and bracing and probably two octaves beyond the average singer's range. At a recent Sunday matinee, it drew an audible "All right, girl!" from the audience.
But Simons stands in good company. Singer Jeanine Anderson, who plays minor characters throughout the play but is well known for her singing on local jazz projects, is also a phenomenal presence. She and Simons both know how to manhandle this material, which is no easy feat. But for a few upbeat gospel tunes that feature the whole chorus, most of the songs sound through-composed (meaning nonsectional, with no sing-songy melody to latch onto). Watkins' music mixes jazz and blues in a nontraditional way, often requiring singers to wrangle with complex harmonies or chord tones. It takes a capable musician not only to understand this stuff, but also to give it the emotional heft it needs.
Oakland Opera Theater is a budget company whose members know how to use resources. Their flagship venue, the Oakland Metro Operahouse, includes a proscenium stage and a large floor space that's subject to endless reconfiguration. In this case, Dean had the audience flank both sides of a long walkway, which served as an extension of the stage. Music director Deirdre McClure stood in one wing, conducting her six-piece orchestra (piano, strings, reeds, drums, and keyboard). A second stage hung in the rafters just above the bar. Decked in wood paneling, it served as the set for Fanny and Pap's small plantation home. Jones typically had multiple planes of action going at once, with Emmett Till appearing in the background while the ensemble stood in front.
That setup worked for a play that's preoccupied with connecting things — the personal to the political, the particular to the general, the past to the future. Watkins chose to gloss over details of Hamer's personal life and focus instead on her activism, particularly the events leading up to the 1964 Convention. Dark River culminates in 1966, the year Hamer was asked to leave the SNCC. (In the play, Hamer lost face because she favored integration over the predominating view that whites should go back and educate their own communities.) It's a bold note for Watkins to end on, and one that she manages to make hopeful. I'll spare you the ending, but "hope" should give a bit of a clue.