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Opera Delves into Difficult Subject

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Educators say slavery doesn't get enough play in school history books. The opera Margaret Garner, now playing at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre, shows the brutality of the institution in human terms. The contemporary opera wraps up months of events by a dozen museums, schools and social justice groups. They're hoping to turn Margaret Garner into a teachable moment.

Dance class nat: We're going to start with the fourth position.

Dance teacher Melinda Wilson demonstrates a series of moves for her class at Curie Metro High School. Wilson's students leap across the floor, doing spins that deliberately wobble out of control. They end by grabbing their heads and bending with the power of their emotions.

WILSON: Not only do the students get to read and write about the subject of Margaret Garner, but they also get to put it on their bodies and feel what it's like for them to be Margaret Garner. So of course, they can never understand it fully, but we try to give them the limitations of what it was like to be a slave.

The opera, Margaret Garner, is based on a true story. Garner was a run-away slave. When she was caught, she killed one of her children and tried to kill the rest to prevent them from returning to slavery.

Wilson created dance steps to evoke Garner's plight.

WILSON: So tell me what you feel with each movement?
STUDENT (NIKOLE SELL): I feel like all the movement is relating to freedom, you're trying to get out, but you're still hitting it and you're trying, and you just can't get out of it.
STUDENT: (LEILANI HOWELL): At first when we're controlled, it seems like she's feeling like, oh, she can breathe now,s he can take a breath. But then everything gets out of control, and she has to shake back up.

Margaret Garner was re-captured and tried for the death of her daughter. She was charged not with murder, but with destruction of property. The property, being her own child.

That shocks Jennifer Jones.

JONES: The fact that they thought she was property instead of being human. It was mind-boggling because humans that didn't come from you are not your property.

Another senior, Alyssa Bell, picks up another theme from the opera.

BELL: The more I hear about things like this, the more I want to connect with people and see less of color and see less of our differences because we have so many similarities that our differences don't make a difference.

The opera Margaret Garner shows the oppression of slavery through music and a libretto that have a terrible beauty.

Here, in a Michigan Opera Theatre production, the families celebrate when they learn someone's buying the plantation. That means they won't be sold off and separated from their children.

The Garners are shown as a loving husband and wife who dote on their kids. Here, Denyce Graves, as Margaret Garner, sings of her love:


Moments later, the slave owner will question her ability to love and brutally rape her.

It's not an easy story to watch or hear. But educators think it's essential.

DAVENPORT: Even though it's a strong story, it's an extremely important one that we all, all ears of all colors need to hear, to say how far we have gone away from being human and humane to one another, and how do we bridge and heal that gap between us.

Stephanie Davenport heads educational services at the DuSable Museum of African American History.

The DuSable and the Chicago Foundation for Women were among a dozen institutions hosting movie screenings and panel discussions.

Thousands of children saw a musical about the Underground Railroad and learned from an in-depth educational guide by the Auditorium Theatre.

For Davenport, part of her message is to reject the term slavery. She says people's hands and feet were confined, but not their minds.

DAVENPORT: What it does not get to when you say slavery is that there were people, black people, people of African descent, who had an unconquerable spirit, and that came through their own sense of faith and their own sense of community.

BAKER: We as African-Americans live with the ramifications of slavery virtually every day. With our youth, they are not aware of the strength it took to live under these circumstances, to learn under these circumstances and to survive.

Baritone Gregg Baker plays Margaret Garner's husband, Robert. He's a Chicago native.

He says young people are floundering because they don't have a sense of belonging or foundation.

BAKER: What this show does indirectly, a lot like our Jewish brethren. They want you to remember the Holocaust because that is how they teach their children to overcome, we survived this. We need to have the same. 

ambi: I'm Richard Danielpour, good morning…

Richard Danielpour's the composer. He spent several days doing a residency at Northwestern University, including this session with an African-American Studies class. He talked about where art meets history.

DANIELPOUR: What we were speaking about was not just about the 1850s. Every opera has an underlying question that's never outright spoken. I think in Margaret Garner there are two questions. Who matters in this country? What do we value?

Afterward, the students attended a dress rehearsal with Professor Tracy Vaughn.

VAUGHN: I'm hoping that the students take away from this the way in which the institution brutalized everyone, those who were enslaved, as well as, and I would say even more so, the enslavers, where this becomes a sense of something that's normal and acceptable.

Before this class, Vaughn says most of her students had never heard of Margaret Garner.

Senior James Kowalsky was one of them.

KOWALSKY: When you start to learn what wasn't said about slavery, it makes you wonder what wasn't said about Reconstruction era or the Jim Crow South or the civil rights movement. And I think it's a chain of history that just leads people into understanding that there's more to our situation today than we give credit to.

He says the ugly details of slavery are glossed over. And he's upset those significant events are left out of our history books.

KOWALSKI: It makes you realize that there's a long way to go to make sure we have a complete education.
VAUGHN: And a lot of work to do, to get those stories told.

Professor Tracy Vaughn says the opera, "Margaret Garner," is one step in that direction.

I'm Lynette Kalsnes, Chicago Public Radio.

The opera finishes its run at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre this weekend.

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