In 2014, Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson was commissioned to write a powerful choral piece — one that quotes the last words of seven Black men killed by police or authority figures.
The result was “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” which incorporates the final words of Michael Brown (“I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.”); Trayvon Martin (“What are you following me for?”); Oscar Grant (“You shot me, you shot me.”); Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe.”); Kenneth Chamberlain (“Why do you have your guns out?”); Amadou Diallo (“Mom, I’m going to college.”); and John Crawford III (“It’s not real.”) into a moving seven-movement choral and orchestral work.
The Washington Chorus, under the direction of Eugene Rogers, will join forces with the Washington Performing Arts, Sphinx Orchestra and vocal ensemble EXIGENCE, to perform the piece on January 31 at the Kennedy Center.
“When we found out that the 25th-anniversary tour of the Sphinx Organization was going to bring us to the D.C. area, it was logical and organic to invite members of the Washington Chorus to join EXIGENCE and the orchestra on a performance of this powerful work,” Rogers says.
Rogers directed the debut of “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” back in 2015, leading the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club. He then returned to work with his group, EXIGENCE, years later, leading the piece along with a string quartet and piano.
For his third version, he is excited to be working with a mixed choir and full orchestra.
“Going back to 2014 when this first premiered, there probably wasn’t as blatant a classical piece that dealt with issues such as Black Lives Matter and Black men being killed by authority figures or at the hands of police,” Rogers says. “Because it was so very present, and set in a classical concert hall, which isn’t usually full of African Americans, it took people through all sorts of emotions — sorrow, anger, pain — and it challenged the listener to think about and experience some of that emotion.”
The piece contains no commentary and no added words except those final utterances, but the 15-minute orchestration often results in charged emotional responses. So much that early on, people actually left the hall.
“90 percent of the time, the piece received overwhelming standing ovations from the audience,” Rogers says. “But that 10 percent are individuals who struggled with or wrestled with the emotions and reactions that popped up. We’ve been very fortunate to talk about this and our belief about its impact.”
He recalls that in the beginning, Thompson never really intended for the work to be performed.
“It was his way of processing his own feelings of being a Black man in America, around a time when all of this was happening,” Rogers says. “We were becoming more aware of it due to social media. People recommended he reach out to me, and I wrestled with the work, decided to perform it and worked alongside him to edit and tweak. We felt strongly these words needed to be heard.”
“Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” is just one of the selections on performance night, but is one that shouldn’t be missed.
“This became classical music’s response and a piece that brought comfort and awareness to what was happening at the time of George Floyd and so many others,” Rogers says. “But in addition, the night will include amazing artists on stage performing a wide array of music by Black and Latinx artists and composers. This is going to be a historic evening. We call people to action.”
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