On Foot And In Song, Retracing Stony Course Of Blacks In New York

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Baritone Kenneth Overton serves as guide of On Site Opera’s newest project, ‘The Road We Came,’ exploring the history of Black people in New York.

NEW YORK — Since 2012, On Site Opera has staged site-specific operas in unconventional locations throughout New York City: museums, a community garden, a soup kitchen, and a historic synagogue. When the pandemic upset conventional performances, On Site invented intimate, multimedia programs for individual viewers with a theme of separation/isolation: “To My Distant Love” proposed live performances of Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte” via telephone, preceded by emailed love letters; for “The Beauty That Still Remains,” called “diaries in song,” ticket buyers received physical diaries by mail and watched musical performances online.

A map helps visitors navigate the tour.

For On Site’s newest project, The Road We Came, the music is still heard remotely, but the viewer visits the venue in person, with three walking tours through different Manhattan neighborhoods exploring the history of Black people in New York. Tours are accessed through a smartphone app (active data connection required) that provides for each tour an interactive map guiding the user to five or six sites: public institutions, private houses, or addresses with historical significance.

At each stop an essay, written and recorded by independent historian Eric K. Washington, explains the significance of the location and introduces important figures, and a performance by baritone Kenneth Overton and pianist Kevin J. Miller (filmed by Ryan and Tonya McKinny) enhances the experience. The tours can also be taken in virtually for those distant from or unable to walk around New York. It’s a vivid, revealing prism through which to examine some hidden facets of the city’s sometimes uncomfortable 400-year history.

I set off eagerly on the tour of Lower Manhattan, where the city’s modern history began; each tour includes a statement acknowledging that Manhattan occupies unceded land taken from the indigenous Lenape people. The visit began at the African Burial Ground National Monument, a sober, dark-gray granite monument on a patch of grass in the middle of the downtown courthouse district. Symbols of world religions dot the walls of a spiral walkway that leads the visitor down to a circular pit, where inscriptions in the granite floor identify 275 slaves, young and old, male and female, reinterred at the site, out of more than 15,000 remains that had been identified over the course of almost 30 years of archeological research.

1640 image of “New Amsterdam,” the original New York settlement, depicts the presence of slave laborers. (nps.gov)

In the music video, baritone Overton, wearing a black and red African-inspired robe (Jessica Jahn and Azalea Fairley’s gorgeous wardrobe designs cast rainbows all over town) strode deliberately through the sacred space, singing to the ghosts of these dead souls: William Grant Still’s elegiac “Grief,” a hymn by Virgil Corydon Taylor, and a hope-filled spiritual. The videos included text captions, made almost superfluous by Overton’s impeccable diction. The baritone’s honeyed tone and silken phrasing largely compensated for the sometimes tinny sound of the piano, and his stoic dignity almost belied the pain of the lyrics.

On leaving the Burial Ground, I managed to stray from the mapped route, confused by the seemingly random gyrations of the interactive map. But it was easy enough to find the second stop, a station on the Underground Railroad, and a surprise to learn at the third stop, the modest brick home of a late 19th century abolitionist-educator power couple, that today’s posh Washington Square was once known as “Little Africa.” But two hours into the tour (the estimated timings don’t factor in serendipitous detours or rest stops), an unexpected downpour halted my progress, and I skipped the half-mile trek to the final site, a rare Reconstruction-era Black public school administered by Sarah Garnet, that above-mentioned educator. I felt drained by the endless distractions of the vibrant modern city, whose cacophony of architectural styles speaks to layers of history that compete for attention. Besides, by that point I wanted to fill in some of the blanks about what I had just seen.


One of the self-guided tourstops is a house where Hughes lived.

The history of Black people in New York dates back to 1611, with intricacies and nuances impossible to condense into a brief narrative. The lists of names I heard and read had little context until I started researching difficult topics inferred or mentioned only in passing. Slavery is an obvious example — why not begin at the site of the country’s second largest slave market (after Charleston, SC)? Another thorny reality, which persists today, is displacement of African American communities by racially motivated violence and vandalism (the 1863 Draft Riots), via eminent domain (to build Penn Station, Central Park, Lincoln Center), and through gentrification. Before setting off on any of these walks, a tourist would be smart to explore it at least once in virtual mode. Preparation will help the in-person tourist focus on the particular histories largely buried by the modern city, and revisiting the tours will repay the time and effort with a deeper understanding of New York’s complex past and the role Black educators, activists, artists, and entrepreneurs have played.

The Midtown tour was more of a historical and musical jumble, spanning roughly the late 19th to early-mid 20th centuries (but straying to Lincoln Center’s construction in the ’60s), touching on displacements of Black communities. Beginning at a 19thcentury church relocated from Greenwich Village to northern Hell’s Kitchen, the walk traveled north and around to Lincoln Center and passed Central Park and Carnegie Hall on the way to Fifth Avenue. Most of the musical selections on this tour were composed for commercial entertainment, in cabaret, concert hall, or theater.

But that tour ended with what was for me the project’s most eloquent piece: John and James Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” performed unaccompanied, with Overton standing at the glamorous intersection of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, where in 1917, 10,000 black people marched in silent protest against a brutal mass lynching and arson in Illinois. The music video incorporated century-old footage of the protest and a photo montage of demonstrations in the city over the last century, including a Black Lives Matter protest in front of Trump Tower, a feature I would have appreciated on the other tours. At the end of this “Black national anthem,” the camera lingered on Overton’s tear-stained cheeks, and I felt goosebumps.

The 25 songs were variable in their specific relevance to each site, but taken together, the music, either written by Black composers or describing the African American experience, made up a varied and engaging recital. In addition to spirituals and gospel songs, parodies, art songs, jazz, and Broadway tunes, Overton sang a lyrical, ruminative monologue from Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the first opera by a Black composer to be scheduled at the Met (it’s slated to launch the 2021-22 season). On the Harlem tour, songs by Florence Price, settings of Langston Hughes texts by Margaret Bonds, and a pair of tart and rueful songs by William Grant Still represented the rich creativity of the Harlem Renaissance.

Occasionally, I felt awkward loitering in front of a random building listening to music surrounded by New Yorkers walking their dogs or fielding phone calls on the go — especially when the app demanded my password yet again. But the music added an artistic dimension to the lives lived on these streets. Independent of these tours, the vocal selections would make a richly varied recital for the concert hall, and I hope and anticipate that Overton will have the chance to perform the program onstage. And I expect to complete the Harlem tour, and to dip further into the histories unlocked by these tours.

The Road We Came will remain available through July 31. To purchase access to the app and tours ($60 for a single tour or $165 for all three), go here.

1 COMMENT

  1. Today On Site dropped the price from $60/$165 for three to $25/$65 for three. Well worth the investment, especially with 2 1/2 months remaining to explore the tours.

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