Dartmouth Glee Club puts a spotlight on civil rights

by Kaina Chen | 11/8/16 12:00am

The Dartmouth Glee Club’s fall concert transported the audience to the 1960s in Greenwood, Mississippi, listening to Booker Wright read off the menu is his famous sing-song way.

The concert showcased a collection of works that fit nicely under the afternoon’s theme, “Strength and Struggle in America,” including pieces by William Billings, Aaron Copland, Moses Hogan and Nolan Gasser.

By far, the finale intrigued the audience members the most. Gasser’s “Repast: An Oratorio honoring Mister Booker Wright” tells the true story of Wright, an African-American man who ran an enormously popular restaurant, Booker’s Place, on one side of town and worked as a waiter at a whites-only restaurant on the other side of town.

For many, Wright humanized the civil rights movement, appearing in a short NBC interview and telling the audience how it felt to be on the receiving end of commentary from racist customers. Yet, he was also a figure of strength, famously saying, “The meaner the man be, the more you smile.” As a consequence of his comments, he was forced to quit his job at Lusco’s and lost his property, Booker’s Place, to vandalism. Some speculate that the NBC broadcast also played a role in his murder seven years later.

This lyrical story spoke on multiple levels of musicality and storytelling. Composer Gasser was able to attend rehearsals in preparation for the performance, ensuring a smooth application of the music.

“On the surface, it is a fun, rockin’, rousing and soulful experience,” Gasser said. “The music relies on vernacular style and a deep rhythmic vitality.”

When planning out this piece, DSO director Louis Burkot selected the soloist with care.

“I wanted to find someone that would bring a lot of worldly life experience and humor,” Burkot said.

The soloist, baritone Robert Honeysucker owned the role, adding a level of complexity and nuance that can only come from a seasoned soloist, familiar with injecting lyrics with an unparalleled level of energy and life.

“[The piece] doesn’t shy away from being playful,” Josh Cetron ’16, a member of the Glee Club, said.

As serious as the storyline is, the added playful elements created something unique and energetic, elevating the audience beyond the level of mere spectator, into Wright’s vibrant life.

Yet, the end of Wright’s life and the end of the piece is a sobering reminder about the consequences of America’s enduring racism.

“We would like to think of ourselves as being in a post-racial environment, but yet anyone who reads the newspaper will realize how far we still have to go,” Gasser said.