‘The Josh Gibson Story’—When baseball and opera converge in Pittsburgh

Alfred Walker as Josh Gibson

“I’ve met him several times, and he has said he is personally honored to be chosen for this role. He is a sports fan, so he is enthusiastic from both a historical content and the opportunity to play a true sports hero.”
Graves was only vaguely familiar with the Negro Leagues beyond the Ken Burns documentary and less about Grace, Gibson’s paramour and principal supporter. It’s part of why Graves feels a sense of responsibility to the role. “I feel an ownership in portraying Grace,” she said.
Her sense of ownership also comes from experience. Graves originated the role of Margaret Garner in the same-titled opera in 2005 (Garner’s real life story provided the basis for Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”).
Sean Panniker shares that sense of responsibility. He portrays Pittsburgh Courier reporter Wendell Smith and he’s done his homework. “Smith’s backstory includes some meaningful issues. He pitched a shutout for West Virginia University and was scouted by the Tigers,” Panniker said. Smith ultimately changed lanes and began writing about the injustices in professional sports.
Smith would stage workouts to showcase the players. He also polled Major League players, eager to test their skills against the Negro League. But, Panniker said, the team owners were less than enthused.
Panniker also shared Smith’s connection to Jackie Robinson’s debut in the Majors in 1947. Robinson couldn’t stay in the same hotel with his teammates, so Smith would share his room with Robinson on road trips.
“My family and I are thrilled to have Josh Gibson recognized for his life on and off the baseball field in this non-traditional form,” Sean Gibson said. “There are very few operas about sports, and fewer with all-Black cast members in the major roles.”
Additionally, the opera will raise the profile of the Josh Gibson Foundation.
“We are hoping that the publicity and community awareness generated by the opera will bring attention to the foundation and our many youth programs,” said Sean, who is also executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation.
“The Summer King: The Josh Gibson Story” will be sung in English with English subtitles projected above the stage. If you’re new to opera, think of it as a live-action music video. And you can also witness a rarity in opera: a predominately-multicultural cast with African Americans in the major roles.
(Tickets are available for its four-performance run at the Benedum Center, April 29, May 2, 5 and 7. For the May 7 show, the 3 p.m. performance will feature some sports icons in non-singing roles such as Al Oliver, Sean Casey, Charlie Batch and Franco Harris. A reception highlighting the Josh Gibson Story will be held at the August Wilson Center, May 7, from 6 to 8 pm. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 412-456-6666 or visit www.pittsburghopera.org.)
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