The Michigan Opera Theatre Pays Homage to a Negro League Baseball Legend

The program honors Josh Gibson while exploring themes about discrimination and race
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Josh Gibson // Photograph courtesy of Josh Gibson Enterprise inc.

Kings, emperors, and even barbers have had their praises literally sung on stage over the centuries. So why not have an opera about a baseball player? And to make it even more dramatic, have the hero overcome adversity while exploring themes about discrimination and race.

That’s the premise behind Daniel Sonenberg’s “The Summer King,” an opera about Negro Leagues baseball player Josh Gibson.

Sometimes referred to as the Black Babe Ruth, Gibson hit almost 800 home runs over a career spanning the late 1920s until his death in 1947 — just months before the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to break the Major League color barrier. Gibson was eventually honored in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The Michigan Opera Theatre is hosting performances of the opera this May, but the buildup has been going on for at least a year through a partnership between the MOT and the Detroit Tigers called “Take Me Out to the Opera.”

The program explores the role arts and sports play in improving race relations. The theater won a $45,000 Knights Arts Challenge grant to help support the “Take Me Out to the Opera” initiative. MOT has been presenting events throughout the city that combine baseball, music, and history — from concerts and lectures to youth workshops.

Some examples include performances of “I, Too, Sing America,” the MOT lecture-performance on the contributions of African-Americans to classical music and sports that were held at both suburban and city neighborhood venues.

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History has also hosted related events, including a March visit by the Dance Theatre of Harlem and a free screening of “The Soul of the Game” — a movie about the experiences of Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Gibson during the Negro Baseball League era.

At press time, an Opera & Jazz program featuring works from the 1920s-40s performed by MOT musicians and local jazz artists was scheduled to be held at Cliff Bell’s on April 18.

Other events are being planned for late April and early May in Hamtramck. The city is the site of Hamtramck Stadium, a surviving Negro League-era ballpark built in 1930 for the Detroit Stars. One of the best-known Detroit Stars was Hall of Famer Norman “Turkey” Stearnes, considered one of the greatest home-run hitters of all time — in any league.

The main event — “The Summer King” opera — will be held May 12-20 at the Detroit Opera House. For more information and tickets, visit michiganopera.org

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