In the early hours of April 20, 1989, 28-year-old jogger Trisha Meili was assaulted and left for dead in Central Park. The ensuing media frenzy instigated a public outcry for swift justice. Within days of the attack five African-American teenagers implicated themselves, after hours of psychological pressure and aggressive interrogation. The teens were tried as adults and convicted despite inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, DNA evidence that excluded them, and no eyewitness accounts connecting them to the victim. The convictions were vacated in 2002 after incarcerated serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime and DNA tests confirmed his guilt. The men subsequently filed civil lawsuits against the City of New York, the police officers, and the prosecutors involved in their case. A settlement was reached in 2014 for $41 million.
The story of the Central Park Five has remained in the public consciousness, in part due to acclaimed documentaries on the subject and recent reminders of Donald Trump’s role in fanning public hysteria, and is an ideal subject for composer Anthony Davis. Davis has created several operas that address social and political issues in both a historical and contemporary context, with particular focus on events and figures in American history involving issues of race and social justice.
Davis’ first opera, “X,” examined the struggle of Malcolm X to redefine his identity in accordance with his spiritual beliefs. Subsequent operas included such diverse topics as the kidnapping of Patty Hearst (“Tania”), the 1870s trial of Standing Bear (“Wakonda’s Dream”), a rebellion aboard a slave ship and the trial that followed (“Amistad”), and the story of Adam’s apocryphal first wife as emblematic of the eternal conflict between the sexes (“Lilith”). Given his concern with America’s continuing racial and political struggles, his latest opera, “The Central Park Five,” is of a piece with Davis’ earlier works.
In conversation with UC San Diego Professor Emeritus Cecil Lytle, Davis recounts the origins of the opera, the challenges of writing for an ensemble, the use of jazz idioms in his work, his preference for smaller-scale intimate dramas, and the responsibilities an artist undertakes when dealing with historical events. He stresses that there will always be a place for socially-aware works that confront controversies head-on, and in this vein mentions his plan to create an opera focusing on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (depicted in the first episode of HBO’s “Watchmen” series). As Davis noted in an earlier interview, “These pivotal events in our history offer windows into understanding who we are today and how we arrived at our present situation. The slogan, “Black Lives Matter” is not only an important political statement but it is also the central focus of my work as an artist and composer.”