In its fall concert on Sunday, November 6, at 2 pm in Dartmouth’s Rollins Chapel, the Dartmouth College Glee Club will premiere a Glee Club-commissioned choral work that centers on the poignant story of a little-known “accidental activist” from our nation’s Civil Rights Movement.
By noted composer, musicologist and e-music pioneer Nolan Gasser, Repast: An Oratorio tells the story of Booker Wright, who in the 1960s necessarily led a double life in deeply segregated Greenwood, Mississippi. The most beloved member the black waitstaff at an upscale, whites-only restaurant, he was also the owner and chef of Booker’s Place, a nightclub renowned throughout the Black South for its food and fellowship. After Wright bravely spoke about the racial divide in a documentary aired on national TV in 1966, he lost his restaurant job and his business, and his comments also may have been a factor in his murder eight years later.
Joining the Glee Club as baritone soloist is Robert Honeysucker, a Boston-based, internationally touring opera and concert performer of great distinction.
Entitled “American Strength and Struggle,” the Glee Club program also includes music of William Billings, Moses Hogan and Aaron Copland—composers who, says Glee Club Director Louis Burkot, laid the groundwork for contemporary composers like Gasser who work in a distinctly American idiom.
Gasser first wrote Repast for solo baritone and piano under a 2014 commissioned by the Southern Foodways Alliance (a nonprofit based out of the University of Mississippi that examines the food culture of the American South) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the desegregation of public accommodations, including restaurants. The libretto is by National Book Award finalist Kevin Young. The work was performed at Carnegie Hall last spring.
Upon hearing about the work in an NPR story, Burkot saw an opportunity for partnership, he wrote in program notes for the concert. “I was deeply moved by Wright’s story. The oratorio illustrates the ‘double consciousness’ of African American life during the Civil Rights era. A man of dignity and grace, Wright spoke out about injustice and paid the ultimate price. I immediately contacted Gasser about creating a version for solo baritone plus chorus,” which the Glee Club will premiere.
“The story of Booker Wright has incredible resonance for me today, as it illuminates the discourse dominating the nation’s airwaves and social media platforms,” Burkot wrote. “The arts have incredible power to affect change, and I want to help bring more attention to this incredible story both here on the Dartmouth campus and in other communities through the commission of a new choral work.”
Gasser will be on hand for the premiere, providing students with a chance to meet and hear from not only a successful composer but the founding architect of Pandora Radio’s Music Genome Project. Involved in Pandora since its founding in 1999, Gasser wrote the software that decides what song you’ll hear next when you tune into the now-widespread music streaming service. While at Dartmouth, Gasser will meet with students associated with the DALI (Digital Arts, Leadership, & Innovation) Lab, among other gatherings.
Gasser’s other noted compositions include the opera The Secret Garden (commissioned by San Francisco Opera in 2013, with multiple forthcoming performances, including Houston Grand Opera in 2017; Tyler’s Suite (a choral work for Tyler Clementi, in collaboration with Stephen Schwartz, Jake Heggie, John Corigliano, and four composers; Cosmic Reflection, a narrated symphony on the history of the Universe (premiered at the Kennedy Center in 2010, recorded by the Baltimore Symphony); and the musical Benny & Joon (based on the 1994 film of the same name).
In Booker Wright, he encountered a personage whose story continues to unfold. Wright first told his story to filmmaker Frank De Felitta in Mississippi: A Self Portrait, a documentary aired on NBC in 1966 that focused on injustice experienced by African Americans in Mississippi. In Greenwood, he was introduced to Wright, a waiter at Lusco’s, a whites-only restaurant. On camera, Wright charmingly sings the menu, a gimmick at the restaurant. He then speaks openly about his derisive treatment by customers, and life in a racist society:
Some call me Booker. Some call me John. Some call me Jim. Some call me [deleted]. All that hate, but you have to smile. If you don’t, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you not smiling? Get over there and get me so and so and so and so!” There are some nice people: “Don’t talk to Booker like that. His name is Booker.” Then I got some more people come in, real nice: “How you do, waiter? What’s your name?” Then I take care of some so good, and I keep that smile. Always learn to smile. The meaner the man be, the more you smile—although you’re crying on the inside.”
The backlash to the documentary was immediate. Wright had to quit his job at Lusco’s—where he had worked more than 20 years—after being shunned by customers. He was severely pistol-whipped by a policeman, and his own restaurant, Booker’s Place, was firebombed. A beloved and respected figure in a town that was a major center for the segregationist Citizens’ Council, he reopened Booker’s Place and bought a school bus to transport children in the Head Start program. He was shot to death by an African American customer in his restaurant in 1973, which raised some conspiracy theories.
As he says in a 2012 film by his son, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Raymond De Felitta (Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story), de Felitta worried about Wright’s comments at the time:
Then I had a talk with Booker, and I said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” I said, “Do you know what’s going to happen? First of all, this picture is going to play all over the South, Mississippi included. And there people are going to watch it, and they’re going to watch you, in a sense, ridicule them as being fools, not knowing how you hurt inside.” And he says, “I understand it. I thank you.” He says, “But no.” He says, “The time has come. Don’t you understand? The time has come.”
In the Dartmouth concert, Wright’s role will be sung by Robert Honeysucker, recognized internationally for his brilliant opera, concert and recital performances. In Boston, he has performed as a soloist numerous times with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Handel and Haydn Society and the Boston Pops Orchestra, including the latter’s vastly popular Fourth of July concerts on the Charles River Esplanade. He is a member of Videmus, as well as member and co-founder of the Jubilee Trio, which presents American art songs, including those of under-performed African American composers. He is a member of the voice faculties at The Boston Conservatory, New England Conservatory Extension and The Longy School of Music.