'Stinney,' an opera about a wrongly executed African-American boy, feels unfortunately timely

City Paper

Tia Price is clutching items of laundry to her chest as a semicircle of singers slowly closes in around her. She is in character as Alma Stinney, a mother living in South Carolina in 1944 who has, at this point, just been threatened by a lynch mob. “Baby boy, where you gone, where you gone?” the accusatory circle sings at her, the melody evoking anguished African-American spirituals. As the singers creep closer to her and sing louder, Price’s soprano wail cuts above the rest of them as she cries out “my baby, my baby boy”—I get chills. As the song ends, Frances Pollock, the composer and director of “Stinney,” the opera that they’re rehearsing, directs the crowd of singers to look more judgmental as they surround Price: “You’re judging Tia, you’re judging her family, you’re judging her life,” she tells them.

Pollock comes over to me and says that the circle on stage is missing about half the cast, sounding somewhat apologetic, as if the quality is not up to par. So much of the cast was missing because this was an extra rehearsal scheduled to make up for other rehearsal time that had been lost because of the curfew and the protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray—a reminder of how relevant “Stinney” is.

The opera—which uses gospel, spirituals, and jazz as its inspiration rather than classical or art music—tells the story of George Stinney, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was falsely accused of, and executed for, murdering two young white girls in Alcolu, South Carolina in 1944. He was the youngest person to be executed in the United States in the 20th century—he was so small that he needed to sit on a book in the execution chair. His story, Pollock says, had been almost entirely forgotten until a circuit court judge threw out his murder conviction this past December.

“It’s unfortunately timely,” Pollock, who recently earned her master’s degree in vocal performance from Peabody, says after rehearsal about the opera premiering in the aftermath of protests surrounding Freddie Gray’s death. “That’s kind of been the consensus about this opera, you know, what a horrible world that we, like, can tell this really relevant story about a 14-year-old boy that happened in 1944 and draw correlations with exactly what’s going on in our city today.”

Pollock first came up with the idea for the opera after hearing about George Stinney about a year and a half ago. At the time she was living across the street from Lexington Market with her boyfriend (now fiance), who was working at a second-chance high school. “He would come home with these stories about his kids and their lives and the struggles that they had to face. And at the same time, we were living right across the street from Lexington Market,” she says. “And I’d walk up the street eight blocks to Peabody, which is this pristine, historic, gorgeous, clean-cut ivory tower, and I started looking for a story to tell that was about these kind of two worlds that I was living in . . . the historic, beautiful Peabody and then the Lexington Market, where it’s old and crumbling and falling apart, with two different people but both these historic landmarks.”

When she came across the story of George Stinney, “I looked at. . . the facts of the case and the trial and I was like, ‘I know these people,’ you know? And I think I can piece together what happened and why it happened, growing up in the South and growing up in communities that deal with awful racism and prejudice, even today.”

Although the opera focuses on Stinney, it’s told from the perspective of the two murdered little girls, Mary Emma Thames and Betty June Binnicker, who flit around the stage as ghosts. “You get into issues of appropriation if you’re talking about a white woman writing gospel music,” Pollock says to explain that decision. “You just, you don’t want to put words in people’s mouths, and by writing the story from the perspective of two little girls, I’ve never been an African-American in a racist Southern town, but I have been a little girl in a town that’s racist and that deals with racism. And the second part of that [decision] was, the story of George Stinney is tragic, and it’s awful because a 14-year-old boy was executed in the electric chair, but you’ve got to remember that the whole thing that started it was someone killed two little girls.

“And so the show becomes so much more human when you realize that three children died, not just one, and it brings in all of these components of, who were these people who are trying to deal with this loss?” she continues. “It’s not just the African-American community who has had one of their children taken from them, it’s the mothers and fathers of these two little girls who don’t know what to do, who don’t know how to piece their lives back together. And it just seemed to be a really beautiful, simple way to make everyone seem human.”

I talk at length with her and choir master Ben Shaver about their Southern upbringings, contemporary racism, and the inaccessibility of most contemporary operas to a broad audience. Not only are many contemporary operas too academic for uninitiated audiences, they say, but “the trend in opera right now is these uninspiring stagings where people just stand there and scream,” Pollock says.

“We call it ‘park and bark,’” Shaver adds.

“I wanted to do an opera that is exciting,” Pollock says. Hence the jazz and gospel-inspired music—Shaver says that, other than André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” he doesn’t know of any operas that use spirituals and jazz music—and the high-tension plot and staging: When I first slipped into the rehearsal, they were practicing a scene in which Price gets pushed and dragged across the floor by Andrew Hann, who then attempts to pin her down and rape her. This is certainly not a parking and barking sort of opera.

When I ask if there’s anything else Pollock wants to add, she gets re-energized, even though it’s 9:30 on a Sunday night after a long week of protests and rehearsal. “So often now, there’s this trend of writing academic music or beautiful music that doesn’t say something, and there’s not a place in this world for just beauty when people are living on the streets,” she says. “I think that too often that we as artists fall back on how beautiful we can make things, and how polished we can make things, and in reality we should be building a platform for other people to say things, and to advocate for something. . .

“It’s time for us to stand up and say something and advocate for people who can’t, because being an artist is a luxury.” 

“Stinney” will be performed May 15 and 16 at 2640 Space at 7:30 p.m., with a lecture beforehand at 7 p.m. Tickets are free, but should be reserved ahead of time at stinneyopera.com.

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