PORTLAND — The awful legacy of racism, scapegoating, and wrongful imprisonment in our nation came under the microscope in Portland Opera’s production of The Central Park Five, a Pulitzer Prize-winning opera by Anthony Davis. It recounts the true story of the five Black and Latino teenagers who were falsely accused and sent to prison for the rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park in 1989. The powerful performance March 18 at the Newmark Theatre reminded audiences how little has changed in the last 33 years.
Directed by Nataki Garrett, Portland Opera’s presentation marked only the second time The Central Park Five has been mounted by an opera company. Richard Wesley’s libretto is based on the flood of media that pushed authorities to blame someone for the sexual assault and near death of Trisha Meili. Inflamed by the vitriolic statements of then real-estate mogul Donald Trump, suspicion quickly centered on five boys (ages 14-16) from Harlem, who were in Central Park that evening. They were deprived of food, water, and sleep, and coerced into confessions even though there was no evidence against them. Years later, they were exonerated by the confession and DNA proof of the man who committed the crime. Their lawsuit against New York City resulted in a $41-million settlement for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress.
Premiered by Long Beach Opera in 2019, The Central Park Five consists of 15 scenes. Garrett, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, altered the first scene a bit to exclude victory cheers at the exoneration and money paid to settle the lawsuit. Instead, that initial episode focused on the cultural clash between the confined neighborhood of the youths and the big world beyond them.
To represent the police and judicial figures, Davis and Wesley created a composite called The Masque, who hated minorities, and a District Attorney who mercilessly interrogated the five.
All of the singers representing the accused youths excelled, transitioning from joking around to confused and defiant. Tenor Bernard Holcomb deftly conveyed the inner turmoil of Kevin Richardson. Tenor Victor Ryan Robertson crumbled convincingly as Raymond Santana. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock expressed defiance as Yusef Salaam. Baritone Donovan Singletary maintained a serious and sad demeanor as Antron McCray. As Korey Wise, who served the longest time in prison because he was tried as an adult, tenor Nathan Granner displayed a soaring voice in his final solo.
Babatunde Akinboboye created an intense Mattias Reyes, the man who actually committed the crime but had a change of heart after “God found me.” Baritone Johnathan McCullough as the Masque and mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig as the District Attorney sang with incisive conviction that they were in the right from start to finish.
Christian Sanders’ depiction of Donald Trump, with splayed hands and pompous gait, was spot-on. But his style in later scenes became more of a caricature, which lessened the menace of what Trump spewed, especially when he called for the death penalty.
Mezzo-soprano Jazmine Olwalia made the most of her brief solo as Sharonne Salaam, pleading for her son. Soprano Ibidunni Ojikutu and tenor Elliott Paige, as McCray’s parents, agitated convincingly for their son’s release.
American Kazem Abdullah, who lives in Nürnberg, Germany, deftly conducted a very tricky score. From my perch, I could see that he impeccably cued the singers. Abdullah is scheduled to conduct Davis’ X: The Life and Times of Malcom X in a Detroit Opera production in May.
Much of the orchestral music is atonal and pointillistic, with brief injections of jazz and hip-hop. Earl Howard infused it all with mellowing sounds from a synthesizer. Sometimes the sonic effect reminded me of a television on the fritz with a blur of pixels across the screen.
The scenic design of Mariana Sanchez Hernandez used upper and lower stages to convey the action. Courtroom scenes and the spouting of Trump took place on the higher stage. Street and isolation rooms were below. The complex interaction of lighting by Jason Lynch, projections and sound by Rasean Davonté Johnson, and additional sound design by Brian Mohr went smoothly. Newspaper headlines blanketed the stage. Strobe lighting added biting reality to the interrogation scenes. Faces and images of people dissolved slowly like a TV going haywire.
It was a relief at the end to see the Five shed their orange coveralls and become free once more. But the message of The Central Park Five still resonates today, perhaps more than ever. We have a long, long way to go as a nation.