With 'Dead King Mother,' Davu Seru revisits an uncle's murderous act of vengeance, 50 years later

Andrea Canter

Andrea Canter

On April 4, 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, 27-year-old Clarence C. Underwood III announced that he would kill the first white man he saw.

He was true to his word. As 25-year-old John Frank Murray climbed off a bus in the north Minneapolis projects on his way home from work, Underwood shot him three times in the head.

Growing up in those same projects, drummer-composer Davu Seru heard whispers about his great-uncle Clarence, whom he saw walking around the neighborhood during the 1980s.

This was remarkable—for a variety of reasons. After murdering Murray, Underwood pointed his gun at the oncoming police and told them to shoot him because somebody had killed his King. They spared his life.

At his trial, Underwood claimed that he couldn’t remember shooting Murray, but he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 40 years in the Stillwater State Prison. He spent one year at St. Peter Mental Hospital and served six years in Stillwater before being released.

Most everyone wanted to leave it at that. The local papers covered the murder and trial, of course, but most people were preoccupied by the news of King’s assassination and the rioting that erupted in dozens of cities across the country afterward. The Glenwood Civic League raised more than $1,000 to ensure that Murray’s widow could return to the couple’s hometown of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Murray had moved to the projects as a show of support for the civil rights movement.

Davu Seru isn’t shy about stating why he resurrected the Underwood-Murray drama as an 18-minute blues for chamber ensemble and woman’s vocal, titled Dead King Mother, which will be performed at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis on the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination—and, of course, the Murray murder.

“I admit I am a sucker for the sensational—particularly tall tales of bad men and anti-heroes wreaking havoc on polite society,” he wrote on his blog in late January. “And I know I’m not the only one.”

But it goes deeper than that. In graduate school, Seru searched out the newspaper accounts on microfilm at the library to flesh out the family’s oral history about the uncle who killed a white man. When I interviewed him in 2016 for a Star Tribune profile, he told me that when he initiated conversations with his family members more immediately affected by the tragedy, “it is still something they don’t like to touch. It took their father away and left my aunt to raise them.”

An accomplished musician and author, and a professor of literature at Metro State University, Seru is bilingually fluent in the often conflicting codes and underlying attitudes that demarcate black and white culture in America, particularly in the Twin Cities. When he refers to himself as a “celebrated local black” in the bio on his website, the sardonic irony is difficult to miss.

Tackling the racially charged, morally abrasive, and inescapably ambiguous resonance of this event was a personal challenge to Seru’s artistry. He’d tinkered with fragments of Dead King Mother for a long time, even playing portions of it for an audience in France years ago. When he was named composer-in-residence at Studio Z, the St. Paul space operated by the new-music group Zeitgeist, in 2017, he got serious about producing something to be performed in north Minneapolis on the 50th anniversary of the day King and Murray were killed.

If you had to label Seru’s music, you’d say it was grounded in jazz improvisation and the blues, and the richness of Dead King Mother courses through both of those portals. The two workshopped performances of the piece at Studio Z in late February featured a septet plus a female vocalist. (The Capri Theater concert will add at least one other instrument.) Seru initially makes superb use of the textural variation of xylophone and bass clarinet, flute and tuba, piano and drum through some swirling passages reminiscent of Charles Mingus. But the highlights include an aching, searing blues solo by Omar Abdul Karim on fluegelhorn that is an emotional centerpiece, and some dizzying, sophisticated interplay near the conclusion of the piece beneath Sarah Greer’s exhortatory vocals in the role of Underwood’s wife. It underscores the lacing of ambiguity, anguish, and anger.

After both Studio Z performances, and at a preliminary workshop of snippets of the piece in January at the venue, Seru solicited audience feedback. Relatives from both the Underwood and Murray families responded. At the Capri, among the people onstage guiding the discussion will be longtime black activist Spike Moss, who grew up with Clarence Underwood, and Seru’s aunt Kelly Hill, Underwood’s cousin. Seru also expects that more black people will be in the audience at the Capri than at Studio Z, which will “hopefully mean people won’t be so quiet during the gospel and blues passages.”

He isn’t sure if his great-uncle Richie, Clarence Underwood’s younger brother, will attend or not. He was with Clarence when news of King’s murder was announced. After dropping his gun on the floor, Clarence told Richie that the revolution was here, and urged him to join him. Richie’s father was the one who informed him that Clarence had killed Murray. According to Seru, he told Richie, “I wasn’t the best father, but I never raised you to end somebody’s life.”

Seru also wants to “touch each audience member enough that they feel implicated.” On his blog he noted that “Part of what makes this story worth repeating is the way that it points to matters that are broadly historical—as if to steal itself away from those who would own it.”

Of course owning it is tricky business too. “If you are looking for easy outs and scapegoats, that’s all built in to the race rituals in this society,” Seru says. “There are all these racially charged cues, but I am looking for people to be more heroic and see their way out of that. If white people are coming to absolve themselves of guilt, they won’t leave as better people.”

Davu Seru’s sense of ownership shines through every facet of Dead King Mother. As he intended. The coda to his blog post on the work simply states: “Everybody has their own blues to sing. But sometimes we’re called to witness on behalf of others. That’s my aim in Dead King Mother.”

Dead King Mother
Where: Capri Theater
When: 7:30 p.m. Apr. 4
Tickets: $15/$10 students & seniors: more info here