One spring morning in 1968, a young preacher prepares to travel from Atlanta to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers.
A recurring dream from the night before troubles the man — particularly an image of a foreboding balcony. As he embarks on his fateful journey, he reminisces on moments of his life and seeks the meaning behind his dreams.
Thus begins I Dream, a rhythm and blues opera that offers a personal and poetic look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the last 36 hours of his life. Opera Grand Rapids premieres the work as a part of the 32nd Annual MLK Celebration on Jan. 15. The celebration honors the life and legacy of the iconic civil rights leader 55 years after the March on Washington and 50 years following his tragic assassination on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel.
The free and open community event is a collaboration with Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College, Davenport University and Opera Grand Rapids. It features keynote speaker April Reign, creator of the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, and awards “Inherit the Dream” scholarships to students who exemplify the ideals of King through their community service or activities.
“I Dream is something special,” said MLK Celebration Chair Bobby J. Springer, commenting on the collaboration that Opera Grand Rapids is joining for the first time this year. “(Opera Grand Rapids) has been working on this production for months. To bring people of all backgrounds together in one space, on one night for a special occasion is a treat to all of us.”
Douglas Tappin wrote the libretto and composed the music for I Dream after moving to Atlanta. He was compelled to tell King’s story after reading several books and speaking with individuals who had been involved with the Civil Rights Movement, including King’s family and close friends. Tappin aimed to create a work of artistic excellence that also captured the human dimension behind a significant American narrative.
“I approached (King) as a person who had a heart, a person who had humanity separate from that heart, and also as a person who had a public persona,” Tappin said.
I Dream was first performed on Atlanta’s Alliance Stage in 2010. It has been presented at a private Washington D.C. event attended by Malia and Sasha Obama, and at the Bessie Schonberg Theatre in New York following an extensive Broadway dramaturgical development process, among other places. In February 2017, Opera Carolina presented I Dream to an enthusiastic, packed house at The Kennedy Center, signaling a new step in its journey.
Opera Grand Rapids’ semi-staged production of I Dream is an opportunity for community members to reflect on King’s radical message — love as an answer to humanity’s problems — and consider their role in continuing King’s dream today.
“It’s easy to forget how brave everyone involved in the Civil Rights Movement was, and how brave (King) was,” Tappin said. “It’s important to remember that this was one man who did, perhaps, what he was meant to do through circumstance. That in itself should be inspiring people in our generation to make the most of their own lives: to be brave, to stand up for the right things, and not to be intimidated by those who would want you to back out.”
Springer agrees that this core idea from I Dream resonates throughout the entire MLK Celebration. He points to Reign, whose mission is to inspire people in her social media network to create social change through their own voices. “What’s important is knowing that everyday people can do good,” Springer said. “It doesn’t have to be a special message or time. Anybody can act.”
MLK Day Celebration
Fountain Street Church
24 Fountain St. NE, Grand Rapids
Jan. 15, 6 p.m., free
operagr.org, (269) 349-7759