On June 30, 1974, Alberta King, mother of slain activist and pastor Martin Luther King Jr., attended what would be her last Sunday service at Ebenezer Baptist. After she played “The Lord’s Prayer” on the organ, a gunman opened fire, killing her and church deacon Edward Boykin.
OperaWorks 52, a new music and storytelling partnership between award-winning composer Damuen Strange and poet Venessa Fuentes, reinterprets Alberta’s story as a conceptual piece. The all-black cast of Mother King includes Liz Gre in the starring role in addition to five other local vocalists and a 12-member instrumental ensemble.
We asked Fuentes about Alberta’s life and legacy, and the genesis of this groundbreaking project ahead of Thursday night’s opening performance at Public Functionary.
City Pages: Why did you want to do an opera? That genre isn’t exactly known for inclusivity.
Venessa Fuentes: Opera’s roots actually are more inclusive. Way, way back in history, that’s how folks got to see and experience music. We’re trying to get it back to that place.
Dameun had been wanting to do an opera project for many, many years. I’m a lifelong fan of opera. I’m not necessarily a huge buff, but I got to travel to New York and went to the Met to see La Bohème and it was probably one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in my life. I have, for a long time, admired artists like Maria Callas and Leontyne Price -- the divas. Opera captures drama and beautiful costuming and poetry all in one package.
CP: What made you want to focus on Alberta Williams King for OperaWorks 52’s first production?
VF: We all know the story of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s not as if he suddenly sprang up out of nowhere and became Martin Luther King Jr. He certainly was influenced by somebody in the course of his life. As I began to do a little bit of preliminary, I found out that it was Alberta, his mother, who influenced a lot of his activism, his social justice lens in life, and how he brought that to his preaching. It wasn’t until I found out that she had been assassinated after he was assassinated that I thought, “This person’s story needs to be told.”
As a black woman, I often see that our stories get marginalized or shuffled aside or muted to make room for other stories. I couldn’t let her story continue being shut out of the broader conversation that we need to be having as a society given the modern-day movement that we find ourselves in, how it has roots in the Civil Rights era. There’s so many conversations happening around race. I wanted to get a little more intersectional about it, think about women’s stories as well as men’s stories, and stories that don’t get told as often as they should.
CP: What about Alberta’s life surprised you the most?
VF: Given the times she grew up in, she was educated at a very young age, her parents supported her to be her full self. When she met Martin Luther King Sr., she stepped away from a professional career in teaching and took on the responsibilities of motherhood, but within her church community, Ebenezer Baptist, she was a total pillar and really made that the priority, not only for herself but for the community and also passed her lessons onto her children.
CP: Knowing that your poems were going to be set to music, did that present any challenges for you as a writer?
VF: For me, it was writing a series of poems and Dameun took them and turned them into the libretto. It’s been really powerful to hear my words set to this music and to hear the people singing my poems in this libretto form. I’ve really been impressed and honored and humbled by it all.
CP: For those who think opera isn’t for them, what would you say to encourage them to check out your show?
VF: It’s definitely not opera in the sense that people might be used to; hearing you at the top of the interview say it’s not very inclusive, and it’s kind of stuffy. Having been to the Met myself, I certainly had a little bit of that experience. There weren’t a lot of people that looked like me, not necessarily onstage, but not even sitting next to me in the seats. Dameun and I are trying to crack that open and make it more accessible. It’s a production we hope people are going to feel compelled to come to. It’s not a classical opera. It is more of an experimental or a modern-day opera. It’s for everybody.
OperaWorks 52: Mother King
7 p.m., July 20-22, 27-29
$8-$12; more info here