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Seventy-five years ago, on April 9th, 1939 (Easter Sunday), African-American opera and gospel singer Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial after being barred by the Daughters of the American Revolution from singing at Constitution Hall because of her race. Anderson ended up being heard by 75,000 in-person listeners and millions of others on the radio.
Saturday night, at 7 p.m., the sold-out “Of Thee We Sing: The Marian Anderson 75th Anniversary Celebration” will take place at DAR Constitution Hall and will be broadcast live on D.C. Cable System channel 16. (In June, Centric, a BET Network channel, will air part of it, too.) Through music, spoken word, and video images, this hour-and-a-half production will try to convey the history and meaning of the event. Soprano Jessye Norman, Anderson’s former friend, will host and be joined by a large cast including Dionne Warwick, gospel group 3WB (brothers Marvin, Carvin, and BeBe Winans), actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. The bill will also feature local performers like composer/singer Dr. Ysaye Barnwell (of Sweet Honey in the Rock) and a choir of nearly 300 voices led by Washington Performing Arts Society Gospel Choir Artistic Director Stanley Thurston. The program will feature a narrative by Tony Award-winning, D.C.-based playwright Murray Horwitz (co-writer of Ain’t Misbehavin’).
Thurston notes via email that Jenny Bilfield, who became WPAS’ president and CEO last April, “envisioned this concert” and discussed it with he and Horwitz. Horwitz read books, watched documentaries, and did research at the Howard University Library. The two then began consulting with people who knew Anderson, who died in 1993 at age 96. “Ms. Norman has been a wealth of knowledge, with a real-time perspective of Ms. Anderson legacy, along with her tremendous musical expertise,” Thurston says of the concert’s host.
Which act will try to match Anderson’s contralto on “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” the best-known composition from her 25-minute concert? The producers have decided to keep that close to the vest. They’re not revealing which cast members will attempt any of the songs from Anderson’s set, which included a majestic take on Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and spirituals like “My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord” and the encore, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” There will be at least one new song sung, too—Thurston says that Bilfield invited Barnwell to compose a “special choral composition” for the concert.
Thurston, Horwitz, and Bilfield contacted 20 D.C.-area choruses to gather singers to participate, including Latino choir Cantigas, the Alfred Street Baptist Church, the Children’s Chorus of Washington, Heritage Signature Chorale, Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, the City Choir of Washington, Washington Chorus, Washington Master Chorale, and the Cathedral Choral Society. Working with so many vocalists would be a challenge for some, but Thurston took it all in stride. “WPAS is accustomed to rehearsing and accommodating singing aggregations of this size,” he says. “The WPAS Choirs number over 200 singers. In this endeavor, it was a special delight to host so many wonderfully motivated singers. The assembled choral singers have such a great sense of admiration and appreciation for Marian Anderson’s legacy.”
The program will offer more than just the songs Anderson sang that historic day. “We knew we had to tell the story of Marian Anderson—before, during, and after April 1939,” Horwitz says. “We’re availing ourselves of all the storytelling tools we can afford: live readings, archival video, audio recording, video appreciations, etc. As with any evening of this kind, we use the tools of the theatrical trade: scenic, lighting, and sound design.”
Can this one night truly convey the importance and meaning of that long-ago event? “We certainly hope to give folks at least a sense of what it might mean to us as a nation in 2014, and to spur them to think for themselves what the meaning is of this historic event,” Horwitz says. “Marian Anderson not only paved the way for other African-American artists; she paved the way for concerted civic action against racism, for reaching a national stage (the concert was the first mass meeting at the Lincoln Memorial), and—perhaps most importantly—for the dignified, peaceful, and non-violent tone of the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Of Thee We Sing: The Marian Anderson 75th Anniversary Celebration” takes place Saturday April 12 at 7 p.m. at DAR Constitution Hall, 1776 D. St. NW. This performance’s $5 tickets are currently sold out, though a limited number of premium seats ($150) are available. Contact WPAS Ticket Services at (202) 785-9727 for availability or to be added to the waiting list.
Top photo courtesy of WPAS; bottom photo by Carl Van Vechten, creative commons license.