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  • Cathy Sweeney

Do You Hear the People Sing? Seeing Michael Brown in the staging of “Les Miserables”

The Dallas Arts district is comprised of several venues, each with a dedicated purpose:   The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, home of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra;  and the Winspear Opera House, home to the Dallas Opera, the Lexus Broadway Series, and national touring recitals, concerts, speakers, and dance troupes.  Other buildings house specific resident troupes, including The Dallas Black Dance Theatre, or the Booker T. Washington School for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Last week, I witnessed transformation at the Wyly Theatre, a venue, according to the website,  for classical and experimental stage productions.  For approximately six weeks, the Dallas Theater Center gave patrons a uniquely contemporary staging of the blockbuster Les Miserables.  Same music, same characters, same beautiful story.  Yet, instead of a setting in post revolutionary France in 1832, director Liesl Tommy brought a fresh perspective to a classic story.  This version included students in red berets (ala ‘Guardian Angels’), police in stormtrooper attire, multicultural actors and actresses, dredlocks, transgender characters, and red protest flyers in place of the revolutionary red flag.

How different was this production?  And why did it matter?  It’s easy for us to lose ourselves in musical theater, in the storyline, in the melodies, and in the lyrics.  The individual elements of Les Miserables combine to bring us an intense story about compassion, mercy,  justice, sacrifice and forgiveness.   Patrons of the show leave having been exposed to courageous and ardent characters, albeit from a period long ago.    Or can we find this same story in our world, today?

Clearly director Tommy answers this with a resounding, “Yes!”

We attended the performance on August 14, 2014.  Consider, for a moment, the events of the week, and the preceding month:

  1. Airstrikes and bombs flying again in the Gaza/Israel conflict, killing civilians – adults and children alike.  Attendees of the Les Mis production might have been thinking of this conflict during the fight scenes at the barricade.

  2. Tens of thousands of Yazidis and Christians in northern Iraq fled to mountaintops to avoid attacks from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).  Families remained on the mountain, without food or shelter; some humanitarian efforts succeeded despite significant artillery from ISIS; and recently, a military mission concluded with many of the refugees rescued.    One might wonder if Jean Valjean felt as rejected and desperate as he searched the local houses for a kind soul to share food and shelter with a former prisoner – someone, shall we say, ‘different’ than the townspeople?

  3. Only 48 hours prior, the world was notified that Robin Williams, brilliant comedian, compassionate and generous soul, took his life.  We learned he battled severe depression; later we learned he was also battling Parkinson’s disease.     Many were still in shock at this death; most were still mourning.   I couldn’t hold back tears as the character Javert sang his soliloquy, just prior to committing suicide – might these words have been Williams’ thoughts as well?

“I am reaching, but I fall. And the stars are black and cold. As I stare into the void, Of a world that cannot hold. I’ll escape now, from that world. From the world of Jean Valjean. There is no where I can turn. There is no way to go on……..”

  1. And on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, outside St. Louis, an eighteen year old  Michael Brown, who was black, and unarmed, was shot and killed by a white police officer in the middle of the day.  The shooting is under serious investigation.  Outrage ensued from the black community, many who opened up with stories of continued abuse and profiling by the primarily white police department and city government.  That night, many rioted.  Over the next week, protests have continued, escalating to a point where the National Guard was sent in to keep the peace.   Curfews have been established, but not always honored.  Police with tear gas, riot gear, and automatic weapons met citizens with fire, rocks, and allegedly – blazing molotov cocktails.

Last night, the situation in Ferguson escalated to a horrific scale, and I listened to the news, read the tweets, and prayed for those in harm’s way.  As I listened to one segment of the news, I learned that some of the community had “built a barricade” to separate themselves from police action.  I closed my eyes, and remembered the re-imagined, contemporary interpretation of Les Miserables:

  1. Do those in Ferguson ask “Will you join in our crusade?  Who will be strong and stand with me?”

  2. Do those called to protect, sing instead, as Javert did, “One more day to revolution, We will nip it in the bud! We’ll be ready for these schoolboys, They will wet themselves with blood!”

  3. Did the protestors sing, before heading to the site of the killing, as Grantaire did in the little bar, “Drink with me to days gone by.  Can it be you fear to die?  Will the world remember you when you fall?  Could it be your death means nothing at all?  Is your life just one more lie?”

  4. And who will be left as survivors to sing, as Marius did, “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.  There’s a pain goes on and on.  Empty chairs at empty tables, now my friends are dead and gone.”  And later in the same song, “Oh my friends, my friends, don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for.  Empty chairs at empty tables, where my friends will say no more.”

What I do know is this:  In this contemporary version of a classic, we are all called to play Valjean.  As we watch and read about the protests, we reach out to God for relief, praying “God on high, hear my prayer.   In my need, You have always been there.  [They are] young, [they’re] afraid.  Let [them] rest.  Heaven blessed.  Bring him home.  Bring [her] home.  Bring [them] home.”

We yearn for peace.  We long for the truth of Brown’s death.  We pray that calmer hearts will prevail, and the people of Ferguson will be able to sing a song of reconciliation and transformation:  “Do you hear the people sing,  lost in the valley of the night?  It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.  For the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies.  Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise.”

“They will live again in freedom, in the garden of the Lord.  We will walk behind the plough-share; we will put away the sword.  The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!”

May God be with every individual involved in the tragic events of this last month.  For those who died, may they have eternal peace in the light of God.  For those who remain, may we hear the melody and lyrics of Les Miserables, which continue to shed light on the nature of God, the nature of humanity, and the nature of our relationships – in times past, present, and future.

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