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Detroit Tigers, MOT collaborate on year-long project

The two organizations will explore the impact of the arts and sport on race relations

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Who says sports and music don’t mix?

On the eve of Comerica Park’s Negro Leagues Weekend, Wayne S. Brown, president and CEO of the Michigan Opera Theatre, announced a yearlong collaboration with the Detroit Tigers to explore the impact of the arts and sport on race relations.

The partnership, which is still being fleshed out, will culminate in MOT’s May 2018 production of “The Summer King,” an opera based on Negro Leagues great Josh Gibson.

The premise behind this unusual undertaking, called “Take Me Out to the Opera,” is that sports and the arts played historic roles in overcoming segregation and further integrating American life.

“Despite the divisions in our country today,” Brown said Tuesday at a panel discussion announcing the program at Comerica Park, “art and sports continue to be unifiers. The love of sport and music have long brought people together.”

Projected activities over the year will include residencies at Detroit schools where students can create their own operas tied to the Negro League Detroit Stars.

Also in the works are performances, panels, workshops, film screenings and book signings at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the Rosedale Park Community House, among other venues.

“In line with the mission of our founder, Charles H. Wright,” said Charles Ferrell, Wright vice president of public programs, “we’re intent on connecting with youth. So our programs will be mostly youth-focused.”

Rod Allen, the Tigers analyst at Fox Sports Detroit and Fox Saturday Baseball, also underlined the importance of bringing Gibson’s story to youngsters.

In his discussions with old ballplayers, Allen said, “Josh Gibson was the name that kept coming up as the best player in the Negro League. So I think it’s important that young people get to know his name better.”

In addition, MOT will mount community performances of “I, Too, Sing America,” a recital performance that spotlights African-American contributions in classical music and sports.

Gibson, widely regarded as one of the superstars of the Negro Leagues, died of a stroke in 1947 at 35, shortly before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier.

“Gibson was a fascinating figure who made the Negro League what it was,” said Daniel Sonenberg, who both composed and wrote “The Summer King.” The opera had its world premier with the Pittsburgh Opera in April.

But while Robinson is world famous, Gibson — who many contended could out-hit any player, white or black — is not.

Ron Teasley, who played in the Negro Leagues before becoming baseball coach at Detroit’s Northwestern High School, said the opera will educate and correct the record.

“I’m sure Josh Gibson would be very pleased to know he was being honored,” Teasley said, “because when you honor him, you also honor the Negro League.”

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy