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Composer Douglas Tappin Brings MLK to Life in I Dream

By Fletcher Word
Sojourner’s Truth Editor

When composer/librettist Douglas Tappin first conceived the idea of creating an opera based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he had no clear idea of how to start such a project so he set out to learn as much as he could about the late civil rights icon.

Tappin, a London native who relocated to Atlanta, GA as an adult, read dozens of books about King and the Civil Rights Movement, he picked the brains of those close to King or to the movement, he scanned FBI files and numerous other law enforcement records.

Finally, his brain loaded, or overloaded, with detail, he decided to incorporate into his story as much of the information he had gleaned from that extensive research as he could. He elected to use a rhythm and blues format combined with a classical operatic style.

The musical style “is a balance between operatic and rhythm and blues,” says the composer. The R & B aspect is included because “I had to pay attention to 21st century sensibilities – no way could this be done without it being rhythm and blues or without including some jazz and spiritual overtones.” A classical opera format was a thought initially but finding a balance enabled Tappin to tell the story in a more appropriate way, he says.

The final story content was another matter. When the work first premiered in 2010, “the story was more flowing and less focused” than it is now. Although the reviews, particularly from King’s family and associates, were glowing, Tappin felt there was a good deal more work to be done.

After three subsequent readings in New York in collaboration with director Daniel Goldstein (who is still the director), the story evolved into one in which the King character reflects on his life from the vantage point of the last 36 hours.

Tappin had begun to place great importance on King’s speech on April 3, 1968 at the Masonic Temple in Memphis, the night before his assassination, when he spoke the inspirational words “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

“What prompted those words? Was it a sense of imminence? Of death?” Tappin asked himself. “I asked myself ‘what if?’ What if he had seen it? What if he knew it was coming? Did he feel that death was imminent?

“After an initial reading in New York – I had my own thoughts at LaGuardia [about imminence] and I thought I can use a similar approach.”

Tappin’s ideas for the last 36 hours then turned towards a dream. “King has had a dream, a recurring dream, and reflects on the dream in which he returns to particular periods of his life – his childhood, his days at the university. Then there is a series of steps, a physical journey to Memphis and a reconciliation of his life.”

In addition to the challenges of the format, Tappin also felt compelled to examine what he perceived to be the conflicts such a man as King must have faced – the internal wars; the drive to be non-violent versus the desire to retaliate and seek revenge; the façade presented to the outside world regardless of the inner turmoil.

Examining what might have been the conflicts King faced enabled the rewrites, recalls Tappin. However, after all these years of writing and rewriting, Tappin freely admits that he still rewrites. He is currently making some edits on Act 2, in particular, and when asked if he might be standing in the stage wing on opening night here in Toledo in April making an adjustment or two, he acknowledges that possibility.

“I don’t know if things like this are ever done,” he confesses.

Douglas Tappin’s I Dream will open April 6 and continue through April 8 at the Valentine Theatre – produced by the Toledo Opera.


Copyright © 2018 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 08/16/18 14:12:12 -0700.

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