Members of Coro Allegro and the Heritage Chorale of New Haven reflect on William Grant Still’s And They Lynched Him on a Tree, 20 years after they first performed it, as the first LGBTQ+ and African American choruses to collaborate on it. Join us for America/We Need to Talk, Sunday, March 24 at 3pm at Sanders Theatre, a concert dedicated to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
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And They Lynched Him on a Tree was a collaboration between a Black composer, William Grant Still, and a White poet, Katherine Garrison Chapin, premiered in 1940. Still’s setting of Garrison Chapin’s libretto is operatic in nature. It calls for a “White chorus” in the role of a lynch mob, a “Negro chorus” that discovers and mourns the victim, a mezzo-soprano soloist as the mother of the slain man, and a narrator. All come together to lament “the long dark shadow that falls across your land” and call for justice.
Coro Allegro’s first performance of Still’s work in 1999 was nearly derailed when the local church choir slated to sing the role of the Black chorus pulled out of the planned collaboration. The reasons cited were the difficulty of the subject for their members as well as their discomfort with Coro’s LGBTQ+ membership. The Heritage Chorale of New Haven, who had been formed especially to sing Still’s work with another chorus in New Haven, graciously stepped into the breach at the last minute. Together, the two groups performed the Boston premiere as the first African-American and LGBTQ+ choruses to collaborate on Still’s work.
The directors of both choruses feel the importance of revisiting Still’s work in 2019, in context of the upsurge of racial violence that has triggered the Black Lives Matter movement. Jonathan Q. Berryman of The Heritage Chorale of New Haven notes: “Never in my adult life have I felt like there was such a long dark shadow that falls across our land.” Coro Allegro Artistic Director David Hodgkins concurs:
These past 20 years have not garnered the kinds of social change that I expected. As a country, we’ve gone from lynchings to shooting up churches, going into Bible studies, synagogues, and mosques, and just killing people. The bad behavior has become much more brazen. People are not even hiding behind hoods. If we, as the White community, or the LGBTQ+ community, or as any community in America, don’t start taking a stand for the marginalized or the brutalized, then we are no better.