Receiving its world première tonight was the powerfully-conceived and movingly-executed We Shall Not Be Moved. Presented by O17 in partnership with the concurrent Fringe Festival, this hip h’opera is not meant as the ultimate gimmick, garnering a little bit of street cred for a genre favored by the cultural power elite. On the contrary, its purpose is serious, moral, religious even: ‘truth’, ‘forgiveness’, and ‘healing’ are words that spring often to the lips of its creative minds, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and dramaturge Bill T. Jones.

Kirstin Chávez (Glenda) and Lauren Whitehead (Un/Sung) © Dave DiRentis
Kirstin Chávez (Glenda) and Lauren Whitehead (Un/Sung)
© Dave DiRentis

This is a work that speaks of and to troubled American cities, and treats of painful themes surrounding race, the black body, poverty, law enforcement and how individuals or a collective can possibly go beyond the ‘hurt’. There are no easy answers. Jones, happily I believe, avoids a simple bifurcation between the world of law enforcement and that of the five black youth on the run who identify as a family of the spirit. In this, he avoids some overblown media clichés, and the story is more complex, much like the reality itself.

It transpires that Glenda, the police officer, who takes pride in being the Law (with a gun), is herself a Latina woman (‘brown girl’) from a poor immigrant background herself, and that her choice of career has been her own way of fighting her demons. “We're from the same place” Un/Sung tellingly urges her at one point. As revealed in the climax of the confrontation, it was her brother who was killed in a school scuffle with one of the teens: he is the reason why they are on the run, seeking escape and, in their way, healing.

Lauren Whitehead (Un/Sung) © Dominic M Mercier
Lauren Whitehead (Un/Sung)
© Dominic M Mercier

There is an element of the story that invokes the city's dark past. The abandoned house to which the teens repair was built on the ashes of the premises of MOVE, the radical black collective bombed out by city police in 1985; despite the death of eleven (including five children), no investigation or apology was ever issued. No past is safe or truly past, and the squatters are living among ghosts who remember. These ghosts are imaged on stage as dancers in grey hooded track-suits, a sometimes funky and jagged, sometimes lyrical and beauteous accompaniment to all the action. Furthermore, the reporter’s voice (the whole is framed as an interview with Glenda), Pat Ciarrocchi, is that of a former news anchor and live reporter on local TV during MOVE. A nice touch.

American history, as Un/Sung declares, is told through dreams. Is this the alternative American dream of the wretched, to turn themselves, as they put it, into “ministers of the spirit”, on this “their burnt altar for outcasts”? The impulse seems sacred, their agonized prayers and imprecations, insistently sung, has a transcendant throb; the burning of the house (and it would seem) themselves at the last seems like ritual self-sacrifice rather than suicide. They are dead already, lives truncated before they properly began.

Kirstin Chávez	 (Glenda) and Lauren Whitehead (Un/Sung) © Dave DiRentis
Kirstin Chávez (Glenda) and Lauren Whitehead (Un/Sung)
© Dave DiRentis

What lives? Un/Sung, the superb Lauren Whitehead was the spoken-word artist, the female leader of the teens, dominating the stage by her rhythms of poetic speech, her extraordinary mix of massive courage and deep fear throbbing beneath defiance. Against (alongside?) her was Glenda, Kristin Chavéz, a glowing mezzo soprano, separated only by the lintel of a doorframe, the narrowest of separations, and the barrel of a gun, the widest. I thought her operatic tones might have gained by a gesture towards something a bit more raw, but her character did mature strikingly through her transformative encounter with the youth, and the sight of her loosening her uptight hair-do as conflagration engulfed the stage is less about retribution than about liberation. She – the erstwhile law – is aware that sacrifice has been made. Go in peace. John Holiday was very notable as the transgender teen; his edgy countertenor displayed all the angst of his tormented persona. The others, Daniel Shirley, Adam Richardson, and Aubrey Allicock were also convincing as roughened, fated teens, unfailingly loyal to each other to the end. There were moments where intonation felt a little uneven, but it added to the rawness in its way.

Daniel Bernard Roumain’s genre-bending score played by a barely seen ensemble in the shadowy backstage was a thing of intense power and pathos. Embracing a kaleidoscope of sonic worlds, opera to jazz, hiphop to Haitian, the whole is nonetheless convincingly integrated, and appealingly funky.

This is a city opera, and as such, a significant contribution to a city festival; the geography takes in both blighted areas of North and West Philadelphia, coded ‘black’ and ‘poor’ to any who know the city well. These are voices which need to echo in our plush theatres, and it is well that they did, troublingly, tonight.