Cantata “True Witness” Premieres at Scripps, Commemorates Women of Civil Rights Movement

Scripps College hosted the world premiere of “True Witness: A Civil Rights Cantata” on Nov. 11 at Garrison Theater. The cantata, which seeks to raise awareness and educate audiences about the African-American civil rights movement, was written by composer Jodi Goble and conducted by Charles W. Kamm, associate professor of music at Scripps and director of choirs for the Joint Music Program of Scripps, Pitzer College, Harvey Mudd College, and Claremont McKenna College.

The “True Witness” project was presented by Anne Harley, assistant professor of music at Scripps. Inspired by her own teachings of the civil rights struggle in the Scripps Core program, Harley wanted to create a musical experience that would be both educational and commemorative.

The program began with a collection of traditional spirituals performed by four choirs—the Claremont Concert and Chamber Choirs, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus Chamber Singers, and the Inside-Out Crossroads Choir. Songs were first sung by all choirs and then by each choir group separately. Some of the many spirituals included “Deep River,” “Down to the River to Pray,” and “Go Down, Moses.” 

After a brief intermission, “True Witness” made its highly anticipated debut. The cantata, which refers to a vocal composition set to instrumental accompaniment, featured all four choirs and two soloists—soprano Gwendolyn Lytle, an associate professor of music and resident artist at Pomona College, and renowned operatic bass-baritone Simon Estes. Paul Bishop was the principal pianist, the only accompaniment to an otherwise purely vocal performance.

The cantata was divided into seven emotion-filled movements, all based off of the texts of African-American women poets, civil rights activists, and leaders. The movements were organized into a timeline of events that occurred during or contributed to the civil rights movement, starting with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and ending in 1994 with a scene honoring Myrlie Evers-Williams, a civil rights activist.

The fifth movement of the cantata was especially poignant. It depicted the tragic story of Jane Heggard, an African-American woman in Mississippi who discovered the lynching of her son. The movement set to music Heggard’s letter to President Roosevelt in 1939, which asserted that she had “true witnesses” to her son’s murder and demanded justice. She received a reply from the United States Attorney General’s Office, stating that legal action was not under their jurisdiction and therefore nothing could be done. The sad exchange between Heggard and the Office of the Attorney General, played by Lytle and the choruses, respectively, delivered a particularly heartrending performance. 

“True Witness,” which received a standing ovation at its close, left attendees very impressed.

“I thought it was very well done and I enjoyed it a lot. It was an artistic way to express the themes of social justice and slavery,” Emily Gratke SC ’17 said. “It was an accessible way to understand it all and a very moving performance.”

Isabella Ramos SC ’17, a member of the Claremont Concert Choir, expressed her enthusiasm for the cantata’s future.

“Since this is the premiere of a work, it’s going to be exciting to see where it goes next and how it will impact the social rights movement,” she said.

The concert was preceded by a Scripps faculty panel discussion. The panel featured professor of history and Africana studies Rita Roberts, professor of American studies Matthew Delmont, and Terrence Roberts. Terrence Roberts was one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students who worked to integrate an Arkansas high school in 1957. The discussion explored the roles of African-American women in the civil rights movement.

Delmont expressed his appreciation for the “True Witness” project. 

“It’s entirely unique in terms of thinking about the intersections of music and history—using musical performance as a way to call attention to aspects of history that most students aren’t likely to know a lot about. I think it’s fantastic for a college environment like this,” he said.

Another member of the Claremont Concert Choir, Natasha Parikh HM ’14, emphasized the importance of bringing this event to the 5Cs.

“At a consortium that is generally accepting, we often forget about the struggles that people have gone through to get to where we are today. I feel that this event served as a great reminder of the struggles that hundreds have faced to bring our generations into a more peaceful world,” Parikh said.

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