ST. PETERSBURG – Most mature adults and seasoned saints can remember exactly what they were doing, where they were and how their neighborhood reacted the moment news hit the airwaves about the tragic murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Maybe his opposition thought he would stop and the fire would extinguish itself, but he knew his mission and accepted his fate.
The “Power of Song: Sounds of the Civil Rights Movement” produced, directed and written by September Penn, artistically epitomizes the nuances of protest songs that evolved out of eras of struggle and protest. Penn acknowledged that those same struggles still lurk in our society today and has become more pronounced.
“I think it’s even more relevant today given the current racial climate,” said Penn during an interview on stage after the last performance at the Palladium earlier this month.
“The tension… it’s bubbled forth in such a dynamic way.”
Penn sees her production as a bridge in a time of the growing turmoil and ill content. The gifted artist was commissioned by St. Petersburg College in 2014 to develop an original musical production about the music of the Civil Rights Movement.
Previously working as a music director for the play “Passages of Martin Luther King,” written by Stanford University professor Dr. Clayborne Carson, she had the unique opportunity to travel with him to China, Jerusalem and the West Bank to share King’s message of non-violence through song.
As a result of this experience, Penn had a wealth of information to draw from to develop her production. However, what helped her to develop her own voice in the “Power of Song” was the growing racial tension, gun violence and edginess that enveloped the recent presidential election.
“The blatant hate, the blatant racism…along with the election process, it seemed to stir some feelings of various sects of our society. So, this song, this production, it can speak to that.”
One look at the performers on the stage, Penn’s strategy to use the arts to counter the current deteriorating social climate is clear. People of all ages and walks of life graced the stage in song, dance and commentary to spread the message of social healing.
“This production can rally different communities to bring together different groups,” said Penn.
Her production company works with various mentoring organizations, churches and civic groups in the community, and they bring them all together in workshops, community dialogue and eventually audition for the show.
“And there’s something that takes place when you do art, when you create art together with different people,” said Penn.
One part of the audition process is the “Power of Song Contest” that takes place in the Pinellas County Schools. This contest engages students from kindergarten to 12th grade in an artistic competition where the top three performers win prizes and the opportunity to exhibit their talent on stage.
This year’s winners were Jordan Bolds from Northside Christian School, Imani Musengwa from James B. Sanderlin IB and Samuel Martinez of Gibbs High School.
Penn plans on expanding the audition process to the entire Tampa Bay area in 2018. Donations to The Power of Song, Inc. can be made by visiting www.thepowerofsong.org.