Michigan Opera Theatre

Take Me Out to the Opera: Exploring the role of arts and sports in social equity and inclusion

By Erica Hobbs for Michigan Opera Theatre
Negro Leagues baseball player Josh Gibson

In April 2017, Pittsburgh Opera premiered a groundbreaking work: “The Summer King,” a new opera based on the life of Negro Leagues baseball player Josh Gibson. While he may not be a household name, Gibson was a legend in his own right. As a power hitter with a batting average higher than .350, said to hit almost 800 home runs in his 17-year-career, some called him the “Black Babe Ruth.” He was bound for the Major Leagues.

Of course, that is not what happened. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier to become the first African-American baseball player to play for Major League Baseball. It was a reality that Gibson lived to see, heartbroken that he wasn’t the one to do it.

While Robinson has gone down in the history books, Gibson, like far too many African American figures, was excluded from the narrative. With “The Summer King,” composer Daniel Sonenberg wanted to change that, and so did Michigan Opera Theatre.

In June of 2017, MOT announced “Take Me Out to the Opera,” a collaborative initiative with a goal of not only sharing Gibson’s story, but the stories of other African American trailblazers. With a range of community partners, the campaign highlights figures in both sports and the arts and explores how the two have been used to promote racial equity and inclusion.

“One of the opportunities available through arts and sports is an ability to bring people together, especially across racial divisions,” said MOT CEO Wayne S. Brown. “We are proud to work with community partners to celebrate those athletes and artists who, like Josh Gibson, were catalysts for change in their communities.”

Throughout the past year, MOT has worked with the Detroit Tigers, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Historical Society, the Detroit Public Library, the Josh Gibson Foundation, Rosedale Park Community House and Hamtramck Stadium to present a series of exhibits, panels, performances and presentations on these themes.

Local figures, including George Shirley, the first African American tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, and Ron Teasley, a former Negro Leagues baseball player with the New York Cubans and the Olean Oilers, have shared their experiences breaking racial boundaries. Local experts such as Wayne State University Associate Professor Dr. Lisa Alexander, a researcher in African Americans in popular culture, and University of Michigan Musicologist Mark Clague, also a researcher in African and Afro-American Studies, have discussed racial representation and inclusion in a larger historical and cultural context. And programs like “I, Too, Sing America” have celebrated African American artists and athletes through poetry, narrative, song and video.

“This has been an incredibly unique opportunity to shine a light on the role arts and sports have played in breaking down barriers for people of color,” said Ellen Hill Zeringue, Vice President of Marketing for the Detroit Tigers. “We are excited that the community will learn about the moving story of Negro Leagues and Hall of Fame player Josh Gibson through the upcoming Detroit premier of ‘The Summer King.’”

The initiative has also focused on children through residencies in local schools. The program allows students to create their own operatic piece which relates the history of Detroit’s own Negro League baseball team with modern-day themes of equity and inclusion.

“Knowing that Hall-of-Famer Josh Gibson played baseball at Hamtramck Stadium is a home run for the hometown crowd,” said Hamtramck Public Schools Superintendent Tom Niczay. “I’m hoping Hamtramck Public School students learn about a historical event, regarding the prejudice African-Americans faced, and that the lessons learned in watching ‘The Summer King’ are relevant in 2018.”

As the campaign winds down to its culmination of the May production of “The Summer King,” the public is invited to participate in its remaining events, including:

  • May 7 – June 10: Negro Leagues Exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History 
    A free display of Negro Leagues memorabilia, images and documents with special emphasis on Josh Gibson and the Detroit Stars will open at the Charles Wright Museum. Display items have been contributed by the following partners: the Charles Wright Museum, Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium, Hamtramck Historical Museum, Detroit Historical Museum, Detroit Public Library and the Josh Gibson Foundation.
  • May 12: MOT Block Party & Opening Night Dinner
    MOT is hosting a block party in the surface lot leading up to the Tiger’s afternoon game. Entrance is free and open to the public with baseball-themed food available for purchase. VIP dinner on the SkyDeck and Chrysler Black Box Theater with special guests from both sports and arts precedes the start of the opening of “The Summer King.”
  • May 26: Arts and Sports Youth Clinics
    In celebration of Hamtramck Stadium, one of only a handful of historic Negro Leagues stadiums still in existence, and a location where Josh Gibson played, MOT is partnering with Friends of Historic Hamtramck Stadium and the Detroit City Football Club to bring baseball, softball, soccer, cricket, and dance clinics to young people. 10:30 a.m., Hamtramck Stadium, 3201 Dan St., Hamtramck, Mich.
  •  June 8-10: Negro Leagues Weekend at Comerica Park (a Detroit Tigers event).

    Additional information is available on the MOT website michiganopera.org.

While the initiative may end with “The Summer King,” the goal of the campaign does not. MOT invites the community to join them in continuing to identify, share and celebrate those who have fought for social equity and inclusion, past, present and future.