The HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra is a space for honest, intimate conversations about life, music, social justice- and how art can help bring us towards a brighter future. In episode one, you’ll hear from two singers who raise their voices against injustice- Davóne Tines and Jillian Patricia Pirtle.
Davóne Tines is perhaps best-known for his original works which look at complex social issues, directly in the eye. Like 2018’s The Black Clown, based on Langston Hughes’ poem of the same name, about a black clown who is at first forced to wear a white costume, and gradually finds the resolve to take it off. Growing up in “Virginia horse country”, Tines connected deeply to the character. "I realized if I wore a certain thing, people reacted to me a certain way. And so that starts you building a toolkit of how you want people to treat you, so you assign clothes to those things. And you can really shape-shift those things very subtly. And yeah, I think that was almost the beginning of me being a performer," he said.
Jillian Patricia Pirtle is a historian, singer, pageant queen, and CEO of The Marian Anderson Historical Society and Museum. Her ongoing battle to preserve Marian’s 150-year old house got even more difficult this summer when three pipes burst in the basement. It’s been an incredibly difficult year, but Pirtle refuses to give up on her mission, saying, “I believe that Marian's legacy and her story makes our stories, what they will become, and our future legacies, possible. So why would I abandon that? You're asking me to abandon myself and you and other little girls who need to have that sense of knowing that they can. If I think of only but myself in this moment, then what?”
Marian Anderson Museum: http://marianandersonhistoricalsociety.weebly.com/
Davóne Tines Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBnULOJjyv9QOaeUXw5iTjw
Vigil video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkSDFkEoU90
Our City, Your Orchestra series: philorch.org/our-city-your-orchestra
The Black Clown by Langston Hughes: https://americanrepertorytheater.org/media/the-black-clown-poem/
Background on our intro music, Dvořák’s Symphony No.9, “from The New World” https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2018/11/24/669557133/dvorak-new-world-symphony-american-anthem
Mixed by Teng Chen
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s HearTOGETHER series is generously supported by lead corporate sponsor Accordant Advisors. Additional major support has been provided by the Otto Haas Charitable Trust.
MUSIC: Dvořák Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 (“From the New World”). Subscription 1 of the 2019-20 season, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Hi, I’m Tori Marchiony and this is the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra- the show that creates a space for honest, intimate conversations about life, music, social justice- and how art can help bring us towards a brighter future. Today, we’re talking about, and to, singers who raise their voices against injustice -divided by decades but connected within the continuum of American music history.
Later, we’ll hear from a celebrated singer with phenomenal range-both vocally and thematically- Davóne Tines. He’s widely celebrated for co-creating powerful contemporary works that address heavy social issues head-on- including racial discrimination and police brutality. We talk about how his life experiences inform his work, how he’s staying creative during COVID, and more.
But first, I speak with another singer and activist- Jillian Patricia Pirtle, a woman who has dedicated herself to preserving the legacy of another- someone who paved the way for African American singers in classical music- Davóne Tines included. I’m referring, of course, to the groundbreaking Philadelphian contralto, Marian Anderson.
MUSIC: Marian Anderson,“He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands”
Marian Anderson sang this song at the March on Washington in 1963, standing alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But the best part was, he’d gotten the venue idea from her. 30 years before, Anderson had performed on those very stairs in a widely attended Easter Sunday concert. It had been organized by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt after Anderson had been barred from appearing at the whites-only Constitution Hall down the road.
Jillian Pirtle: You know, all of that is just- it shows, you know, what your actions are going to do to lead to other actions of greatness
That’s Jillian Patrica Pirtle, the woman in charge of preserving Marian Anderson’s legacy. In 1998, Pirtle’s mentor, a former protégé of Anderson’s named Blanche Burton Lyles, bought a 2-story brick row house in South Philadelphia that Marian had purchased in 1924. Lyles turned it into a museum. And when she passed away in 2018, Jillian took the helm. Ever since, she has faithfully battled underwhelming community support to keep the Marian Anderson Museum afloat- surviving on proceeds from an annual gala and creating fresh programming for mostly foreign tour groups.
Until one day, last March, the world shut down-just before the big fundraising concert. Then, in late June, another blow- two pipes burst, dumping several feet of water into the 150-year-old basement.
A Go Fund Me inched towards a $40,000 goal through summer, until, on September 28, the day before the conversation you’re about to hear, a third pipe burst. As of this recording, the Go Fund Me has more than $17k left to raise.
Host: How are, how are you taking care of yourself during this time?
Jillian Pirtle: To be quite honest, which is at the chagrin of quite a few people in my life, I haven't been focusing on myself. I've been focusing on the major issues at hand with the Marian Anderson Museum and the Marian Anderson Historical Society. And I guess with the pandemic and everything that we're facing, you see more days of, the gloom and not necessarily the bloom that you would want to see from it.
Host: That’s a really good way of putting it the gloom and not the bloom…Why in this day and age, is it still so important to have this physical space to come and honor her in?
Jillian Pirtle: You know, being able to go into a space and look, breathe it in, touch. Being in that atmosphere, there is no other feeling like it it's priceless. We must preserve our history and the stories- there are 1,000,001 stories that are wrapped up in a room in a building, in a garment, in a costume, in a letter. And, how can you lose that? And, I'm fighting daily to try to keep it preserved.
Host: It’s interesting, because we’re taught to believe in meritocracy- that Marian was just the best and that’s why she rose. But actually, she had the support of her community the entire way. She’s singing in church at age 6, and by her late teens, the congregation at Union Baptist Church was raising money for her to get lessons. Newspapers advertising her concerts for free…
Jillian Pirtle: Yes. And that's so very important to put that out there because most people think, you know, she's just this rare figure of life, which she was, and that, you know, despite all of the odds it'll, it had happened for her, it can happen for you if the cards are in your favor. But there were intricate people who saw that what was going on with her was not right. And within themselves at a time when it was not popular to do so, they stepped out of their comfort zone and they stepped up for Marian. And we are talking about incredible, you know, musicians and managers and, political figures. And I always think, just imagine if more people would have that philosophy. What would it be like if we, as Philadelphians would have that communal spirit of wanting to support one another in that way? I bet we could find cures to a lot of the things that are ailing our society, if we just had that mindset that the community had of wanting to embrace this young, beautiful woman of color who had a dream, but to sing and use her voice.
Long before MLK called Marian Anderson “the mother of the civil rights movement,” she was already making powerful statements for equality. In 1935, Austria’s prestigious Salzburg Festival rejected Anderson’s petition to sing. According to The New Yorker, the last time a Black musician had sung in that city, Nazi rioters literally chased him out. Marian Anderson showed up anyway, and dazzled- becoming an international superstar overnight- a position she would continue to leverage for causes she cared about throughout her life, as she integrated concert halls around the world.
Jillian Pirtle: She didn't necessarily have to hold a poster or a sign. She did it that way and it made people talk. And so when she was interviewed about her actions, she spoke, you know, “we are of the same blood. We bleed the same, you know, different colors. Why can't we advance as a people? Why can't we all have the same opportunities?” And she would expand on her views on race relations and on our country, in those interviews, after she made an action, you see? And so she got, she started fine-tuning that process of her being and behavior as a artist, a humanitarian and as a freedom fighter. And it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy for her, even with opening at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, they were met with death threats. They were met with, you know, all types of things happening to them because an African American was going to premiere on that stage. And they did it anyway, you know, as nervous as she was, they did it anyway. And all of these actions led to change in the country.
Host: So speaking of the country, I was reading that she's supposed to go on our money, but then I haven't heard anything about that actually going forward. Do you have any updates on that?
Jillian Pirtle: When the last administration was in office and they were winding things up, they sent the Secretary of the Treasury Secretary Lew here to the museum. They contacted us and we were like, “Oh my gosh, what did we do wrong that Washington's contacting us”? But they said, you know, they wanted to come because there were plans that they were making to put Marian on the back of the $5 bill and they wanted to do their research and they wanted to see how they could design this bill out of her image from her story. And it was so wonderful to see that we're advancing in a country where we can pay tribute to those who created that wonderful history, put it on our currency. And all of that came to a screeching halt. And we keep getting asked how we feel about the fact that we're told that the current Secretary of Treasury is not planning on doing any of that until 2026, 2028, if that. So I don't know what to say, except we are the voice we have been waiting for. It is the United States of America. We, the people. If we, the people say, “this is what we want on our currency”, we, the people should be able to make that change. We, the people use our voice every two years, every four years, every six years to vote for different offices, use your voice. It is We the people.
Pirtle roots for the collective, despite so often feeling like a lone soldier. Nevertheless, there is some comfort in the knowledge that she is but one character in an evolving, inter-generational story. Perhaps Blanche Burton Lyles first vowed to protect Anderson’s legacy because without the singer’s letter of recommendation, the prodigious pianist might not have become the first African American to graduate from The Curtis Institute of Music, or to play Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Or maybe it’s because Burton-Lyles understood that she was the closest Anderson ever got to having a daughter. Maybe Pirtle understands the same thing about herself as the sole surviving heir to Blanche Burton Lyles’s legacy. But wherever the commitment comes from, it runs deep. And despite having other career options than nursing Marian Anderson’s legacy, Jillian Pirtle believes she is exactly where she needs to be.
Jillian Pirtle: Honestly, I've been told through the struggling of keeping the museum together through these crisis times, you know, “think about yourself, give it up, go on, you have your own career in life to lead”. Number one, I made a promise to Lady Blanche Burton Lyles, that I would keep this going no matter what- come, what may. She squeezed my hand in our attorney's office. And I made her that promise. And I believe that Marian's legacy and her story makes our stories, what they will become and our future legacies possible. So why would I abandon that? You're asking me to abandon myself and you and other little girls who need to have that sense of knowing that they can. If I think of only but myself in this moment, then what? And it gets discouraging at times when people tell me to give it up… no- I can’t do that.
Host: Yeah. It's so it's like that exact dichotomy of sort of take care of me versus take care of us. And it forgets the fact that they're completely connected. Then if it's me without an us, it's never going to be- it’s never going to reach its full potential.
Jillian Pirtle: And I always would impart to, you know, artists in our generation. And even those that will come after us, if you can establish your own footprint in terms of opportunities that you can create, not just for yourself, but for others. And I always keep this great sort of picture in my head to keep me humble, but also to keep the spirit of love that God's placed in me. When you rise up, take both of your arms and hands and put them out stretched behind you so that you can pull up others along with you. So that as you're rising, you're bringing others up along that's Marian, that's Blanche Henrietta Burton Lyles, that's We, the people.
Host: And that's you.
Jillian Pirtle: That's me.
You can support Jillian and The Marian Anderson Museum by contributing through their website-www dot Marian Anderson, historical society dot Weebly, w E B L y.com- and also through the gofundme that we’ll have linked in the description box. Please now enjoy an excerpt of Jillian Patricia Pirtle singing “Will There Really Be A Morning”.
MUSIC: Jillian Pirtle, Will There Really Be A Morning
My next guest is Davóne Tines- a man who’s accustomed to being busy. For the better part of the past decade, the in-demand bass baritone was traveling 300+ days a year. Home became more of a feeling than a place- something he could sense in the taste of a familiar cup of coffee or the smell of incense in a hotel room. Earlier this year, when everyone was forced to slow down, this Harvard and Juilliard graduate decided to move in with his brother, Michael, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Dropping anchor felt unfamiliar.
Davóne Tines: I mean, it's been interesting because I've kind of had the opposite of what I think maybe a lot of people experience during COVID, which is I've moved around a lot. So I've gotten really good at making home all over the place. And now that I live in one place for, for literally the longest amount of continuous time since seven, eight years, yeah, I just, haven't had this many months on end in one location. It’s been a really interesting and kind of, yeah, beautiful process to just make home somewhere, to like put a room together and put all the things that you love and own in one place. That was an interesting process. I realized when I was moving, I was like, “Oh, I'm moving into a house where things will exist for an extended period of time?” So I had to gather all my things. This meant from my, my family's house in Virginia, from friends’ apartments in New York, I apparently had left a number of suits and tuxes at a friend's apartment in San Francisco. So there was just a gathering period, of just like, let's just put everything in one place. But just, you know, to set up, uh, to set up a room to set up and really work yourself into a home space. It's been a really nice part of this whole thing.
Host: Yeah. It's so nice to look around a space and be like, “wow, that really looks like me”.
Davóne Tines: Yes. I’ve really been thankful for the time to dig into some ideas and develop things further than I ever would have without this time. you know, it's just like, “Oh, I can actually think about that for a month and talk to people and figure it out and kill that idea and make that one okay”. Yeah. I'm just learning a lot more about my own process and I'm even connecting to colleagues more deeply about their process, has been a blessing. but yeah, it all just folds over into living, you know, just living in a different way. Usually I'm kind of at the behest of a travel schedule and a rehearsal schedule or a production schedule. And now I was, you know, challenged to make my own schedule. And what does that look like?
Tines gets up between six and seven thirty every morning. Makes his bed, listens to his favorite podcast, waits 20 minutes (!) for a drip coffee from his Chemex to brew while he grounds himself for the day ahead. But though he does feel like life is moving more slowly, Tines has not only continued to produce, but has managed to up his game on the digital stage. His first film was simple- a closeup of his own two hands dancing around a candle as he sang, a capella-
MUSIC: Davóne Tines, He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands
Davóne Tines: I've had to learn a lot about film and filming and editing over this COVID time, because I really wasn't into the idea of doing a lot of Facebook lives or just doing things that way, because, you know, in the, in, in, in the quote unquote “more normal world” where you can be with people, all of the performing that I do is very, very, very, very cared for. And careful in terms of messaging and presentation, you know, design intention is a really big part of it. And a lot of the work that I do, especially with Zach Winokur, who's like my art husband. We make everything together. He runs the American Modern Opera Company, which is like my art family. And, a lot of what we do is about being very literal about the resources at hand, you know, it's not about, uh- it’s really about stripping away artifice. It's really about, I mean, in, in, in all ways, aesthetically spatially, personally, performatively, you know, just, be, uh, I dunno as, as naked and direct as possible. So that leads to a lot of different possibilities because you're always connecting to what there actually is. And you're trying to utilize what there is to its best abilities. And especially in this time, in figuring out what does it mean to continue to perform and share and make things, I really had to reflect-and have the time to- about what, how I wanted my art to be translated. Because, you know, I I've been saying that, the, the video screen, the phone screen, the TV screen is the newproscenium. We don't have the theater anymore. We don't have the awesome device that's been developed over centuries where, you know, we focus, sound and focus attention, and look at something… we have Zoom, we, we have our phones, we maybe have our TV if it's equipped that way. And so, yeah, it was just really about getting honest about what the medium was and really kind of being excited for the possibilities of that with classical music. Because, you know, classical music is always in this kind of scare of dying, right? For the past two, three decades. It's like, “Oh my God, the inevitable, slow decline of classical music”. And it's like, yeah, but we're still out here. We're still doing stuff. And, if anything, this means that there needs to be change. There needs to be opportunity for growth. And now we're kind of forced to do it. Institutions are literally boarded up, The Met is closed for a year, so there's a lot of time and space to fill with new ideas.
Tines’ willingness to embrace video meant that when the National Association of Educators offered him a crew of 10 to help film a performance at the historic Lincoln Theater in Washington D.C....he was ready to put them to work..
Davóne Tines: It starts with a very, Baz Luhrmann? Red curtain way (though it was a gold curtain). Cause it's like, “Oh, you're in this grand old theater, like use the curtain”. And so it just opens with this huge arpeggio that opens up the curtain and you just see me step into a spotlight from the back of the stage and just start kind of giving this sermon of The Times They Are Not Changing, but the camera's placed in the audience and is slowly, slowly, slowly zooming in. So by the time you reached the end of the song, it's just my body taking over the whole shot. Then the next song, Amazing Grace, it gets closer and closer and closer. And you kind of realize that this sermon has turned into somebody pleading for their life. So I kind of raised my hands into the don't shoot posture, just saying, “we have to change these times and we have to afford each other grace or people will keep dying”. And then the Vigil is the point where the camera's the closest, you know, so we moved all the way from the audience to like extreme closeup that you don't even see my whole, my whole head. And that was the point it's like, “I'm going to look into your eyes. You will look into my eyes as I say, this thing, like we together will bring light”. That's all we- that’s- what else are we trying to, to, you know? And then it zooms out and ends up with, a version of This Little Light of Mine that I wrote with a producer friend that I love named Jake Vicious. really great name. But, and then it ends with Lift Every Voice And Sing, the Black National Anthem, which is just, you know, maybe my absolutely favorite song in the world.
Vigil, marks the middle of the video. It’s a powerful tribute to Breonna Taylor, who was killed in her home by police while she slept earlier this year. The piano and voice performance was excerpted by Lincoln Center on September 30, and the Louisville Symphony premiered the orchestral version on October 3.
Davóne Tines: It went through a lot of versions. The first version had a lot of pictures of vigils in them, vigils of, for George Floyd, vigils for Breonna Taylor. But I, I got a response from a donor, that really liked the video, but made me think that they could have engaged in the video as trauma porn, meaning like the showing of, you know, human atrocity, but without any context or direction. And that, just the possibility of having made something that could be perceived that way really kind of scared me, made me feel kind of icky. And I was like, “ah, I can't, I can't do, I must change it because I don't, this response is not in line with what I was hoping to effect”. So I needed to get a little more real about what, uh, what was I trying to say? You know, I mean, I think for people of color, at least seeing those images is, it's like you get to join the vigil and bring your reflection to the reflection that you're seeing. For a majority white audience, perhaps it's different because there is an othering based on race and difference. Cause maybe we're not in the place in society where everybody feels welcome and everybody else's spaces. So I think that's indicative of that disconnect. But it's like, “okay, uh, remove all of the imagery of these vigils and, get to the underlying truth of what you're trying to do”. Cause it was like, “okay, if I'm showing somebody a picture of a vigil, what I'm trying to get at is to make, make someone think the reason these people are gathered is really sad. Thus, you should connect to that sadness, but there's too many, there's too many degrees of separation there”. But I realized the point of the video is to draw you into engaging that statement at an emotional level. I think we kind of engage it at a mental level, especially with how news cycles work and it just kind of pushes it in your face over and over again. And you kind of feel, I dunno, at least my experience is, I feel shocked or I feel kind of even re-traumatized in a way, with my own fear of being a Black man in America, by being reminded of this all the time. But it's like…”what are we doing about it? What is all this shock and potential trauma feeding into to make this not happen anymore?” And I, uh, I, I just thought, you know, what I needed at the time was just a place to, to reflect a place to heal. And so this song is very purposefully, very slow. It makes you slow down. It makes you kind of change your mode.
MUSIC: Davóne Tines, VIGIL
“Vigil" concludes with the revelation of three, concrete action items.
Throughout the piece, Tines primes the a audience for action with a series of slides, prompting specific exercises in self-awareness.
Davóne Tines: Pay attention to your breath, feel the weight of your body in a chair. What is your hand touching? Just your senses and engaging your physical being to kind of ground you. And, what I found is if you were put in your body, then your mind is kind of allowed to be free, free to receive something free to imagine something, cause you're not living all in your head. You know, you like, if you come out of your head, you've got space there to do some stuff. Because we know it. We protest, turmoil, national, international news. We hear this all the time, but it's like, do people really stop? Literally stop and think about what that is. You know, it's one thing to be like hyped and overwhelmed about it. It's another thing to actually engage it so that we do something. And I think it's a little too easy for people to think like, “Oh, someone's handling it. This is terrible. Someone's doing that work”. And it's like, “well, some people are, but they need help”. So if you feel upset about this, you do something about this. I mean, I said in the artist's statement, and just kind of dawned on me one day that, “what’s the point of crying, if those tears aren't watering the seeds of change?” You know?
Tines is big on service. It’s a trait that he says runs in his family, right alongside a shared love of music, and a steadfast dedication to church. Growing up, sleeping in on Sundays was never an option.
Davóne Tines: We all, all my siblings, cousins, extended family, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, so on, I mean, you know, our nuclear family unit is kind of like 20 people. And so yeah, we, we all go to the same church, you know, ever since I was little and, everyone had to sing in the choir no matter what, it was just, you know, we sang in the choir, all of us, whether you loved it or didn't, it was not a question. So that was extremely foundational. That was my first music making, you know, even as a, as a small kid, you know, just being in, you know, in the Baptist church, sometimes choir rehearsals become their own church services. And I remember on a Saturday, you know, just being in the choir stand, for like four hours because, you know, you'd learn a song and a lot of songs have, have vamps at the end. And then sometimes, you know, you say, “Oh, we're just going to do it two times for practice”. You did 27 times because someone catches the spirit or just goes with it. And, and I just remember rolling around on the floor, like “it's Saturday! I want to do anything else.” But yeah, just really kind of built the foundation of, my music life.
And my family, uh, everyone did different things. My brother played the cello for a really long time. He also sang in choir and has a beautiful voice. And, my grandfather directs in his retirement from the Navy, three church choirs. My grandmother sings and is very often a soloist with our choir in different church contexts. And yeah, there's a piano, an old piano in our, in the house in Virginia. And I love it. It's completely out of tune and, but the sound is so amazing. It's just the wood or the seasoning on it or whatever. It's just like, it's perfect. But, you know, gathering around that piano randomly on a Thursday afternoon. And my grandfather feels like playing hymns and my grandmother feels like singing and I'm conscripted into singing back up. So things like that. Yeah, just music was always just kind of a fluid thing. I mean, my grandmother and I still, when, when we'd run errands, if I'm visiting them, just drive around and sing random songs or she's always humming something. So it was just kind of normal to just be making music even in the most casual way.
But then formalizing, it was really interesting, with my family. I took, I took piano lessons when I was little from a woman down the street, really nice woman. And, uh, it was, she, she got to a point with me where she said she was having a very hard time because I didn't want to learn the notes on the page anymore. I was playing Scott Joplin, Maple Leaf Rag, and I just like memorized it and just played it. And she's like, “that's wonderful”. And then she's like, “now read this thing”. And I was like… “Hmm”. It was like, no, I just heard it, played it done. Like, yeah, no. I don't want to do the techniques of reading right now. But as I got older, I got way more serious about that. I picked up the violin in middle school ended up playing that for 14 years. I was pretty good at that until I realized I was never going to practice as much as some other kids did. Uh, and I was practicing five and six hours a day. I was like, I can't do eight, nine. I just can't. I got it. I got to play video games, I got to eat, but you know, yeah. It just shifted.
Host: Good for you!
Davóne Tines: And so, singing in a way became a path of least resistance. But, early on it was like, “Oh, I joined choir”. And then I started getting the lead in the musicals and I was like, “well, this is fun”. And then I auditioned for honor choir and national honor choir. And then thought, “you know, maybe I'll go to conservatory and get real training in this, you know, I'd taken a few voice lessons”. So I auditioned for, I auditioned for Yale at didn't get in. I was pretty set on going to Eastman. I got in there, we visited Juilliard as a family when I was younger and my grandmother very distinctly was like, “they don't really read books here?” And I said, “I mean, that's not the point. Well, I'll, we'll read books, there's a book club”. but, so it kinda came the suggestion of, of applying to Harvard because a family friend had went and was kind of part of the alumni world-cause they have a very intense alumni world. and so I visited, and I sang for the Director of Choral Activities at that time, a really brilliant man named Jamison Marvin. And, but yeah, I know that he wrote a very, very complimentary recommendation letter and also just applying. I had done well in school, high school, wasn't it wasn't academically challenging, to a certain degree. I had a nice time. I like, did my assignments. I really just wanted to get the work done so I could do the extracurriculars, you know, go to theater practice, be in improv troupe, be in student government. That's really what I relished in high school. And even in college, it's like, “I'm really here so I can be in the orchestra and build a set for the American Repertory Theater.”
Host: But so then, you ended up at Harvard, as a sociology major. What happened?
Davóne Tines: I went as a music concentrator at first and I quickly realized I wasn't going to become a pedagog or a composer, directly, or, you know, things in that academic ilk with music. Cause it wasn't a conservatory is a, you know, academic music department. It was just wonderful. And I have so many friends that were there and the, in the faculty I've still am in touch with some people. But, I was looking around like, “okay, what can you do? What are you going to do?” And so sociology really sparked my interest because it was the study of people, but in a, in a grouping way, in a communal way, you know, and it, it gets…sociology gets a lot of flack because it's not anthropology and it's not economics. Right? It's the thing in the middle. But it's like, “guys just relax. We're trying to synthesize things. That's all, don't be mad at us for trying to look at the bigger picture. You know, in fact maybe y'all are a little too narrow. Okay”. But I did that because, you know, I like things that I do can, I can be grounded or at least really know why I'm doing it. And when I looked through the sociology course catalog, I was like, “that makes sense”. That will help me understand lunchroom table division in high school. This will help me understand why growing up as a Black student, you know, in a predominantly white socioeconomically high area, was complicated. This other thing is going to help me understand just dynamics within this country over time, in terms of groups of people based on all sorts of things, divisive things- religion, race, sex, sexuality, all sorts. So I really loved that. It was really a tool kit for just understanding the world around me.
And then more, more directly in terms of job. I was like, “okay, I like the arts. I like singing. I'm not doing that in school in a formal way, but if I- I want to do arts administration in some way, cause you know, that's a job has office and stuff,” which my family was like, “yes, that is a thing that you can aspire to do. There's an office, a desk, a punch card”. And so yeah, that's, that's what I thought I wanted to do. and Harvard kinda in a, in a very kind of older world, liberal arts way, doesn't have kind of formalized concentrations that plug directly into job markets. I mean, there's kind of analogs, like, you don't study, you don't study Law, you study Justice, you know, you, you don't study Finance, you study Economics. And so when I was like, “well, what's the concentration that will get me into arts administration?” I thought, well, sociology, I mean, it's got all these tools for understanding people. And I really wanted to enter it to have a bit of understanding about why people created and propagated art, because if I understood that I could understand how to support it.
Tines did work in arts administration for a while after college. He wrote grants for a small symphony in Virginia, ran a tiny painting school, and eventually, got hired to produce a full season of opera at George Mason University.
Davóne Tines: And I was sitting in the lighting booth one day with our designer….I was like, “you know what, I can do that. I should try to do that!” I kinda got honest with myself that that's actually what I wanted to try doing.
So Davóne decided to give singing a try and went to Juilliard for his masters. Since graduating (from the conservatory) in 2013, he’s made an impression on the classical world- conquering the “olds” like La Boheme and Otello, while paving a fresh path with new works. Like 2018’s The Black Clown, which brings music to the lesser-known Langston Hughes’ poem of the same name. Today, Tines and collaborator Zack Winokur are working on a podcast that will serve as an extended program note. And it’s turned out that spending more time with Hughes has led Tines to examine himself even more closely.
Davóne Tines: That poem, I felt really directly mapped onto my entire life experience. You know, it's all about costume, it's all about presentation. It, it starts with a character, the Black clown, and he has the white suit and hat of a clown on him. That's the first stage direction. The first that that Hughes gives, he gives a stage direction. And, he ends the poem after having walked through all of Black history in America, which is American history. This person reaching the resolve to remove that costume, to take off the performing and experience. And that's something that I wanted to figure out how to do, because, yeah, it just seemed like I was cultivating that my entire life. Because I mean, maybe ever since I was like five, when we moved to that area and I went, I was the only Black kid in my classes usually, or sometimes in seemingly the whole school, you know? You'd like, see a Black person and as they pass in the hallway, but you don't know them, but you know, that you're different together. And discovering this and figuring out this podcast and what's the story to tell, it's really meant, going pretty deep into my personal experience of performing identity and performing race. And part of the exploration was me starting to unpack how I've gotten to this current version of self-presentation. There were some kind of, you know, I guess, on what, what now seems wacky incarnations of the white suit and hat of a clown of putting on a white identity from, you know. In high school, I just paid so much attention, so much attention to presentation, to detail that I started to learn it, and I started to learn how to manipulate it. And it almost kind of became a game. You know, of just like, well, if I wear the right thing, I realized if I wore a certain thing, people reacted to me a certain way. And so that starts you building a toolkit of how you want people to treat you, so you assign clothes to those things. And you can really shape-shift those things very subtly. And yeah, I think that was almost the beginning of me being a performer was just doing it- being like, “this is the character today, you know, you are on student council, you will wear this kind of…” I started wearing ties to school at a certain point. And it's like, “if I wear this, I have a wall of formality and you will treat me a certain way because I have other things to get done. And I don't want to just spend all this time combating your perception of Blackness so that I can move these other agenda items forward”. Like, I need to neutralize you and I'm going to do that with my costume, you know? And then sometimes it got funny or jokey even because preppiness was a big thing, especially in Virginia horse country, you know, Ralph Lauren and all that, and Abercrombie & Fitch at its height. Polo shirts, popped colors, but I would just, just for, just for, you know, giggles, take it to the Nth degree and wear two popped colors at once, which some people did, but wear a kelly green one and a pink one and pop both of them and wear seersucker shorts and a Madras blazer and just show up to school and be like, “what were you going to do? Yeah, I'm Black. I'm dressed the way that you want to be dressed and thusly, I am dressed the way that you want me to be dressed”. So, you know, it, I costume that way to like, to do what I thought was freedom. To say, like, I want to do all these other things. I want to talk to you about all these other things. So I'm gonna not be the thing that you think I am.
But the other, the danger in that is that you ignore who you are. You spend so much time fixing and changing the outside that you don't think about what's inside. And, yeah, there's, there's damage in that. I mean, I've, I've through longer realization through reflection, externalizing, all these things. You're like, "well, I am in a much different place. Maybe it's a better place. I think it is, but it's definitely not done. You know?” I mean, and it's the complication of like- it's knit into my very being, you know, my, my, my range of diction, my range of stylistic choices in dressing. I mean, it's a blessing and a curse to have such a specific, attention for these sorts of things, because you can also just riddle yourself with, over-analyzing, you know, it's almost I’d- I wish I didn't have a kind of specific aesthetic lens sometimes because I wouldn't worry myself with those choices, but that's not the case.
Despite the state of the world in 2020, Davóne Tines has had the audacity to continue making plans. In the next 2-5 years, he hopes to bring his meditation on police brutality, Were You There, to all 50 states*. The equipment needed is minimal- just a handful of battery-operated lights. It’s the human element, he says, that will define each performance.
Davóne Tines: And the word community is really complicated because a lot of times institutions use that word to “other” people, to “other” people of color of minorities, but I mean community, in like the capital C everybody. We bring people from the Collective, people that have been doing organizing work, right at all the various levels. And we, we're working with a really amazing, amazing strategy consultant in Rebecca Sigel to find partners in every state, to find these people and really not just invite their organizations to show up, but to actually be a part of making and being in the piece, just to like really connect and weave it together as much as we can figure out how to. It's, it's about, you know, the, the community of people, connecting to people they know, or connecting to people they know live near them or understand even their part of the world. And seeing those people go through the process of engaging these ideals and then coming out of that into a larger discussion, with these people unpacking what they've experienced between the audience and everybody involved on stage. Sharing information about the organizations these people are from, and then having a more kind of cathartic communal space for people to one, learn a lot, two, talk to each other about what they care about and what they've experienced emotionally. And three, hopefully walk out into the world with some resources and direction, you know, telling the full story.
Davóne Tines feels no shame in making an explicit point. He creates work that is both intentional and clear. Because there are pressing conversations he wants to have- and despite the privileges of his own elite education, he doesn’t think multiple degrees should be badges for admission to the concert hall.
Davóne Tines: We can't keep acting like everyone understands why things are happening. We have to tell each other why things are happening. We have to like try to figure it out, those answers together. Yeah, I'm just, I'm just tired of the, of the charade that like “everyone should understand”. Cause I think if you pressed those people that said, “Oh, you need a certain, you know, echelon of education to engage something”. If you pressed them a little bit to say why, I don't think they could tell you.
If you’re craving more from Davóne Tines, I totally understand. And highly recommend checking out his Youtube page. While you’re surfing, also, consider following The Philadelphia Orchestra on Facebook or Instagram- it’s a great way to stay in loop with all their cool programming...like the Our City, Your Orchestra series, which brings small ensembles to Black-owned businesses and iconic cultural locations throughout the region. The next location on deck? The Marian Anderson Museum of course! Check out philorch.org/our-city-your-orchestra at 7 pm on November 2 to watch a stream of the intimate performance. Thanks to my guests, Davóne and Jillian for joining me, and thanks to you for listening to the very first HearTOGETHER Podcast. If you liked it, please rate, review and subscribe. Then join us next month for more honest conversations about life, music, activism, and everything in between.
MUSIC: Marian Anderson, “Whole World In His Hands”