Arts Listings

New Opera Portrays Life and Times of Black Panthers

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday June 15, 2007

Oakland Opera Theater will present two staged scenes from operas in progress by Mary Watkins—Dark River—and Clark Suprynowicz—The Panthers—this weekend, Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at The Oakland Metro Operahouse, 201 Broadway, near Jack London Square. 

“Oakland Opera had planned to re-mount last year’s production of Anthony Davis’ ‘X,’ about Malcolm X,” said Berkeley resident Clark Suprynowicz. “There were complications, and they weren’t able to do it, so they found out about our projects, which I think are well-matched. Mary’s opera is about the Civil Rights Movement, and ends as mine, on the Black Panthers, begins.”  

Suprynowicz’s opera, commissioned by the Oakland East Bay Symphony for their 2009 season, begins in 1967, “with the inception, here in Oakland, of the movement. The characters we’ve all heard of are characters in the opera: Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver ... but it’s important to remember that 98 percent of the Panthers were the rank and file, young black men excited to see people trying to make things right in America, volunteering for the school breakfast program, the sickle cell anemia outreach--which got picked up by the state, the donated shoes project, free ambulances, the good works ...” 

Suprynowicz continued: “Meanwhile, there are other factors, other forces, like a three-legged stool, all in conflict: all the revolutionary rhetoric being spouted, like ‘If America doesn’t give us what we ask for, we’re going to burn it down’—and the FBI, and the secret COINTELPRO project, active since the Red Scare, cannily reflecting that rhetoric as crazy, the Panthers as thugs. In 1968, J. Edgar Hoover announced his number one goal was to destroy the militant black movement in America. With everything else that was going on! Yet if you put aside outrage, and think of it as a power struggle, you can feel the dismay of the powerful: what if the black groups did come together? And they were always smaller than the media was portraying them, and torn by factional battles ...” 

For Suprynowicz, this is “where it becomes interesting theatrically, where you can’t psaint it black and white. It becomes a more human story. When we talked with David Hilliard of the Panthers, he was quite frank—one of the two founders had a drug problem. And there’s the sudden celebrity issue: could any of them imagine being interviewed by Playboy, being on the cover of Time? The whole weight was put on personality, like kids becoming rock stars.” 

“What people think about the Panthers is quite fluid,” Suprynowicz went on. “Their ideological bent will dictate what they say. The more I get into the story, the more Rashoman-like it gets. So we present the different perceptions, not the most sensational aspect, through the chain of the story.”  

Asked about the music, Suprynowicz said, with surprise, that he felt the project was in unexplored territory. “Frederica Newton, Huey’s widow, said that it’s kind of amazing that nobody’s ever done this before, to make this into singing theater, put it onstage this way. Talking to veterans of the Panthers, I asked what they listened to, and they said, Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone ...” 

Suprynowicz recalled his own background. “I played in bands, remember the aural sense of the late 60s, the funk and Motown sounds. And I’ve been a professional jazz bassist. My challenge has been to do more than draw on that vocabulary for orchestral music, to write songs that would have been credible in that day, then orchestrate ... and I don’t see that connection, surprisingly, having been made before. It’s not that much of a stretch to listen to Stravinsky, “The Firebird Suite,” and hear it as exciting syncopated music, not so far from James Brown, or Grand Central Station and the invention of slap bass. All you have to do is squint a little and see the connections.” 

“When I first thought about the characters,” Suprynowicz concluded, “I tried to see, say, Huey as an operatic tenor. But it’s in the situation of drug abuse, of the violence—real, that they were accused of, that was directed at them—that you find the places you can get at the pathos, and it’s heartrending. And best presented by an orchestra rather than a six-piece rock combo. This way, it has the best of both worlds.” 




Works by Mary Watkins and Clark Suprynowicz, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Oakland Metro, 201 Broadway.  

$24. 763-1146.  


Photograph by Stephen Shames 

Panthers stand just offstage at a Free Huey Rally in DeFremery Park. Cleve Brooks (at center, with arms folded) founded the San Quentin Prison chapter of the party. Oakland, 1968.