An opera singing police officer, modern dancing ghosts and passionate spoken word set to music, artistically explain the cry of urban Philadelphia.
An explosive history lesson weaved in the fabric of a modern-day musical using technology and lights set the scene for “We Shall Not be Moved”. The show directed by famed choreographer Bill T. Jones, and gave a history lesson within a modern day story about the rise and fall of the Philadelphia-based militant black liberation group Move in the 1980’s. The show hit stages in Philadelphia and New York City this fall. I had the pleasure of seeing this show at the legendary Apollo theatre on New York City’s 125th street in Harlem.
I didn’t think that ghosts, hip-hop style opera and digital technology mixed with a live orchestra would work. It sounded too dramatic and overly artistic. But in order to tell the classic story of Move and fuse it with the modern day story of urban American teens, it works and keeps the attention of the entire audience.
My skepticism quickly faded as the dramatic opening of the show gave one a sense of the divide between the people of Philadelphia and the police. Move highlighted the tension between the racism and police brutality but quickly became enemies of law enforcement. The first 10 minutes of the performance focused on turning the pages of the calendar to uncover what exactly Move did and why the Philadelphia police were involved. The theater lights came up and the voices singing could be heard coming up the aisles. The actors made their way to the stage. The graphic design screens that helped the actors in a modern theatrical setting were impressive.
Spoken word artist Lauren Whitehead lends her voice in spoken word and song to the cast with her character Un/Sung. She is the sister of the young men who feel life for them is both fragile and unfair. San Diego Opera Alum and Mezzo-Soprano Kirstin Chavez lends a compelling performance as a conflicted cop who comes from area but struggles between being loyal to her people or to the brotherhood of the police force. Her role was important to the police side of the argument and to represent the hispanic community in Philadelphia, also oppressed by police brutality.
The well choreographed fight scenes, shootings and dramatic monologues about being a young man in urban Philadelphia wouldn’t have been possible without the acting chops and strong alto / tenor vocals of actors John Holiday, Daniel Shirley, Adam Richardson and Aubrey Allicock.
Move got its start in the early 1970’s. Activist John Africa led the group on demonstrations and protests. The anti-establishment group created its own community and lifestyle separate from society while fighting for social justice. The militant protests caused friction with Philadelphia police. An officer died as a result of a Move/Police standoff. The incident led to more violence between the two groups and eventually a bombing of the Move home which destroyed 65 homes, killed 11 adult members of the group and five children.
The impact was devastating to the community where the home was bombed and it has not fully recovered from the incident in 30 years. The theatrical performance brings light to the pain in the community and its impact on the new generation of teens.
What makes the story so dramatic for everyone watching is the killing of children during the Move bombing. The children stay in the entire show as ghosts and can not be forgotten no matter what happens during the story.
The teens are looking for opportunity but feel trapped by a system designed to keep them hostage to struggle. The young men and women in the show sing about not being able to make it past the police brutality, violence and lack of opportunity in the neighborhood. The music was so intense in the show, the orchestra had little time for breaks and the maestro had sweat dripping from his brow while giving direction.
Leading ladies Whitehead and Chavez drive the storyline through its middle and end. The storyline was strong through the show but a few problems happened in the last 10 minutes of the performance. “We shall not be moved” made some powerful statements in the dialogue throughout but its ending seemed to bow out of being too tough on cops or magnifying police brutality too much in its ending. In an era where those who view performances and television are hyper-sensitive it’s often difficult to predict the audiences understanding. I think the creative team behind “We shall not be moved” chose to play it safe. They kept the message strong but avoided offending some patrons.
Overall, the “We Shall Not Be Moved” cast gives a riveting performance giving modern day theater a boost towards social consciousness that reaches far beyond “Hamilton” and “The Color Purple”. I would definitely recommend this show to anyone wanting more than traditional theater.