Imagine if Buildings could Talk

This month marks the 60th anniversary of a historic event that seems so far away, and yet still very much relevant in our current politics — the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.
Among the vast group of people who have been working to commemorate this anniversary is Dr. Gayle Seymour, Associate Dean of the University of Central Arkansas’s (UCA) College of Fine Arts and Communication. What began as a conversation back in 2011 between Dr. Seymour and Dr. Rollin Potter — then the Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication — morphed into six years of brainstorming, grant-writing, planning, and execution.
“The idea was that we needed some artistic form to memorialize the courage of the Little Rock Nine and the historical significance of the event that happened in 1957. We felt like opera was the right artistic medium, because our story is about heroes and villains, and it’s about people who suffered, and attempts at resolution,” Dr. Seymour explained. She and Jennifer Deering, grant writer in UCA Sponsored Programs, began the grant-writing process to commission an original opera in 2013, and started the search for the right composer. They eventually chose New York based composer, Tania Leon, who flew to Little Rock to visit Central High and surrounding sites, and to meet with several of the Little Rock Nine and journalists who were present at the desegregation.
One scene of the opera will be presented on the evening of September 25 at “An Evening with Hendry Louis Gates, Jr. and Tania Leon: Turning History Into Art.” The scene will be curated by Dr. Arlene Biebesheimer of Opera In The Rock, and performed by local vocalists, all UCA graduates. These four singers will have the opportunity to be coached by the composer, Ms. Leon, which is a rare thing in the world of opera. The full opera is slated to be finished in July 2018, at which time the composer will begin the process of bringing it the stage.
This performance will be the final event in a series that will begin September 4, all focused on the concept of the arts facilitating a conversation about equity and social justice surrounding Central High and the Little Rock Nine.
Wanting to go beyond a single opera, Dr. Seymour asked how else the arts could be used as entry points into this historical moment. “We are talking about art that reaches down to the soul of the listener or viewer and has the power to change people, to move them to action,” she said. “The arts can be so critical in leading people to conversations and understanding.”
Dr. Seymour and her team have partnered with a long list of grantors, arts organizations, government agencies and individuals to facilitate “Imagine If Buildings Could Talk”, a succession of events including music, dance, visual art, spoken word, architecture and more, all connecting to the history of Central High School in 1957.
When asked where the title concept came from, Dr. Seymour explained, “Buildings are containers of people’s stories. Architecture itself contains some of the story- look at the size and splendor of Central High compared to that of Dunbar (which in 1957 was a Little Rock high school for African Americans). It tells you something about the separate and unequal system that was in place at the time.”
Perhaps the project that highlights this concept the best is a commissioned work of 3D video mapping that will be projected onto the façade of Central High School. UCA film professor Scott Meador took a sabbatical for a semester to work on this project, which incorporates images of Central High students past and present with photographs and footage of the desegregation. This nine-minute video will be screened every 15 minutes September 23 and 24 from 7:30-9:30 p.m., and is set to an original score by UCA Percussion Professor, Blake Tyson. Tyson has also worked with percussion ensembles from 33 different universities who purchased the music and will be playing it all over the country for the 60th anniversary commemoration. Proceeds from the sale of the music will benefit the Little Rock Nine Foundation.
Other events will include the CORE Performance Dance Company working alongside local spoken word artists, a display of visual art by junior high and high school students from all over the state, and free bus tours of significant architectural buildings relating to the Little Rock Nine. To find the full schedule of events (most of which are free), visit www.uca.edu/cfac/central60 .
Dr. Seymour — who just completed a 3-month sabbatical to complete this momentous project- commented that it has been inspiring to do this kind of work. “I am interested in projects that deal with civil rights, but I’m more interested in local projects that do that. As an educator, its more impactful for students to understand history that happened in their own backyard. It’s important to try to understand how systems of power have kept certain individuals out of the conversation, and these historic moments where people stood up to make a difference.”