ST. PETERSBURG — For their first Black History Month arts performance in two years, students at Gibbs High School will be departing from the norm by reenacting a lesser-known historical tale. The opera performance will be held at the Gibbs Grand Theater on Fri., Feb. 20 and Sat., Feb. 21, with both shows beginning at 7 p.m. and open to the public with a $15 ticket purchase.
“This is a different story about black history which I usually don’t do,” said Dr. Cody Clark, Counselor for the Pinellas County Center for the Arts (PCCA) magnet program at Gibbs High School and director of this year’s production. “I usually do civil rights stories, which is exciting but common.” Clark has worked at Gibbs for nearly 30 years and has scripted 17 previous Black History Month performances for the PCCA program.
Clark said this year, the production will center on the tale of Dido Elizabeth Belle. Dido was the daughter of Sir John Lindsay, a British Royal Navy Officer who, according to history, fell in love with Maria Belle, a slave aboard a Spanish ship that Captain Lindsay’s crew had captured. After Maria gave birth to their daughter, Lindsay entrusted Dido to his uncle, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield. In doing so, Lindsay protected Dido from enslavement.
History further shows that Lord Mansfield and his wife educated Dido and raised her along with Lord Mansfield’s great niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Although Dido was of mixed race and an illegitimate child—a great scandal given the time period, the late 1700s—the Mansfields cared for her. Some speculate that love for Dido influenced the ruling to end slavery by Lord Mansfield, who was also Lord Chief Justice.
Last summer, Clark went to a screening of the movie “Belle,” which focused on the scandal surrounding Dido and Elizabeth being brought up together. Intrigued by the tale, Clark began his own research and further discovered that Lindsay had brought Maria Belle to live in Pensacola.
He also connected with Margo Stringfield, an archeologist from the University of West Florida in Pensacola who has done research on Maria Belle.
“So they have findings, court records and burial records and were able to see that [Maria Belle] actually did live [in Pensacola] and how [Lindsay] took care of her,” Clark said. “If it had not been for that connection, this would have been only a British show.”
Stringfield has agreed to visit Gibbs after each performance in order to discuss her related findings and answer questions from the audience.
The performance itself will focus on the friendly relationship between Dido and Elizabeth, who were just a year apart in age. Clark needed one black and one white student to play these roles, and found such students in the PCCA vocal division.
“The performance will be almost like a ballet, but instead the story will be told through opera,” Clark said.
Clark, who has studied music extensively over his own academic career, worked with other teachers to decide upon 10 songs for the performance. Dawne Eubanks, the vocal instructor at PCCA, trained the students in the songs, which are all in European languages such as French and Italian. Songs include “The Cat Duet,” to show the comic banter between Dido and Elizabeth, and “The Flower Duet,” which according to Clark is a song about a woman who finds roses and lilies intertwined in a garden—an apt metaphor for the unusual circumstances of Dido and Elizabeth’s relationship.
Clark said PCCA has not hosted a Black History Month performance since 2012 because funding for those projects dried up. Clark noted that a strong performance costs at least $15,000, though can often cost double that amount. However, Clark’s proposed historical performance attracted Title I attention. Title I provides funding for such projects so long as they include a learning component and are hosted at schools with a large proportion of students from low-income families.
Therefore, Clark said, the entire Gibbs High School—not just the PCCA magnet program—will be involved in researching this story. English and Social Studies instructors for each grade have purchased books and materials to teach students the history behind this upcoming performance.
PCCA students have researched set design and 18th century costumes, hair and makeup to prepare for this performance. In addition to the operas, the Gibbs choir will perform three spiritual songs. Clark said that although his past black history performances usually included gospel music, gospel did not exist during the time period in which this performance takes place. Thus, the magnet program and Gibbs are working together to ensure a historically accurate, entertaining performance, Clark said.
The students will attend special daytime performances, which are not open to the public. These shows are free to the students as Title I covers the costs. After the daytime performances, Stringfield will go to classrooms to engage students and present more information.
Clark said he hopes the nighttime shows sell out. If PCCA makes a profit, the extra money can be used to fund future Black History Month performances.
“A show like this will hopefully prove that [the arts are] educational and it is something worth endowing,” Clark said, referring to the recent lack of funds for black history performances. “When they change the funding and lose the arts funding, they lose a valuable part of education. And the black history shows have been a really strong tenant every year to those students … located in the heart of the black community and who fall in the low socio-economic status. If anybody needs [those shows], it’s that community.”
In addition to individual tickets, which can be purchased at Gibbs High School, churches and businesses have the option of buying packages to have their names in the program as supporters and contributors.
“Ticket sales are really going,” Clark said. “A lot of white people are coming to it and that’s unusual. It’s because of this classical component, which I intentionally did to draw a diverse crowd. I really want the community to see it; they’ll be impressed.”