Turning History into Art

Join us as we welcome Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Tania León to UCA’s Public Appearances at Reynolds Performance Hall. Both our guests will bring their vast knowledge and experience to the topic of “Turning History Into Art.” Dr. Gates is an Emmy-Award winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist and cultural critic, and has authored 17 books and created 14 documentary films, including Africa’s Great Civilizations, which aired on PBS earlier this year. He is also the host of the highly-acclaimed television program Finding Your Roots, which returns for its fourth season on PBS this October. Tania León is a composer and conductor who lived her early life in Cuba, moved to New York City to study music at New York University, and has since enjoyed a decades-long career in music, including an opera commission from the Munich Biennale. León is currently a Distinguished Professor at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, which is part of the City University of New York system.

Through their respective mediums, both Gates and León have investigated this topic of “Turning History Into Art” before, and we’re grateful they‘ve turned their talents to the Little Rock Nine opera, León as composer and Gates providing historical research. On September 25th, we will begin our evening with a preview of one scene from the opera itself, composed by León and librettist, Thulani Davis, professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Arlene Biebesheimer from Opera in the Rock has skillfully selected a cast of four singers, all professional vocalists and alumni of the University of Central Arkansas’ music department, to perform the scene. The vocalists are Ronald W. Jensen-McDaniel, Nisheedah Devre Golden, Candice Harris and Kendra Thomas. They will be prepared for the performance by Tania León, herself, and accompanied by Dr. Paul Dickinson, who is an associate professor of composition and music theory at UCA.

As we watch the scene, we will be dropped into a moment in time where the nine students, still safe with their black peers in their segregated school, volunteer to be the ones to integrate Little Rock Central High School. The scene movingly depicts the wide-eyed optimism and apprehension they experience in preparing for integration. After the short performance, Dr. Gates will first take the podium and Tania León will follow, and they’ll each speak about their artistic processes and what they’ve brought to the Little Rock Nine opera. Immediately following, Gates and León will be joined by UCA professor and journalist Dr. Donna Lampkin Stephens, who will engage them in further conversation about their work on this project. We’ll end our evening together with an audience question and answer session.

Although all other events in the “Imagine if Buildings Could Talk” project are free to attend, this lecture and performance does have a nominal fee. Tickets are $15 for the general public, and $5 for UCA faculty, staff and students, as well as $5 for children and students from all other schools. The event will be at Reynolds Performance Hall here on the UCA campus on Monday, September 25th at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased before the event by calling the box office, or online at uca.edu/reynolds, and tickets will also be available the night of the event at our box office.


About the People behind the Little Rock Nine Opera

Thulani Davis (c) Sarah Morton 2015

Thulani Davis, librettist for the Little Rock Nine opera

Thulani Davis is the author of six books, texts for music, and several screenplays. Her music theater work includes libretti for Anthony Davis’ Amistad (Lyric Opera of Chicago, 1997); X: The Life & Times of Malcolm X (City Opera of New York, 1985), and Anne LeBaron’s The E. & O. Line (University of the District of Columbia, 1989). Other texts for music include Miya Masaoka’s Dark Passages (Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 1998) and Bernadette Speach’s A Woman Unadorned (Lincoln Center, NY, 1994). Her plays include The Souls of Black Folk: An Oratorio (Nat’l. Black Arts Festival, 2003); Everybody’s Ruby (New York Shakespeare Festival, 1999); an adaptation of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (NYSF, 1990), and Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon (NYSF, 1977). Davis has received a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, a Pew National Theatre Artist Residency, and was a 1993 GRAMMY winner. A trained historian, Professor Davis is currently a professor in Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is, perhaps, uniquely qualified to write this libretto because in 1959 she was one of five African American students chosen to integrate schools in Hampton, VA. Having seen events unfold in Little Rock on television, her family allowed their daughter to choose to participate; however, the Hampton school board decided not to proceed based on the outcome in Little Rock. Professor Davis’s husband, coincidentally, is from Pine Bluff, making her already familiar with the state, its people, and its history of division. Visit Dr. Davis’s Website.

Tania León, composer of the Little Rock Nine opera

Tania León is highly regarded as a composer and conductor and recognized for her accomplishment as an educator and advisor to arts organizations. She has been profiled on ABC, CBS, CNN, PBS, Univision, Telemondo, and in independent films. Leon’s opera Scourge of Hyacinths, based on a play by Wole Soyinka with staging and design by Robert Wilson, received twenty performances throughout Europe and Mexico. The aria “Oh Yamanja” (“Mother’s Prayer”) was recorded by Dawn Upshaw on her Nonesuch CD, The World So Wide. Commissions include works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, New World Symphony, Koussevitzky Foundation, Fest der Kontinente (Hamburg, Germany), Cincinnati Symphony, National Endowment for the Arts, NDR Sinfonie Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, The Library of Congress, Ensemble Modern, The Los Angeles Master Chorale, and The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, among others. Her honors include the New York Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Symphony Space’s Access to the Arts, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and the Fromm [at the American Academy in Rome], Koussevitzky, and Guggenheim Fellowships. In 2013 she was the recipient of the prestigious 2013 ASCAP Victor Herbert Award.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian and consultant for the Little Rock Nine opera

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, as well as director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Professor Gates is Editor-in-Chief of TheRoot.com, a daily online magazine focusing on issues of interest to the African American community and written from an African American perspective, and the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field of African American and Africana Studies. He is the co-editor, with K. Anthony Appiah, of Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. He is the editor, along with Franklin W. Knight of Johns Hopkins University, of the six-volume Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin Biography. An influential cultural critic, Professor Gates has written a 1994 cover story for Time magazine on the new black Renaissance in art, as well as numerous articles and opinion pieces for The New Yorker, the New York Times, and The Root. Previously for PBS, Professor Gates produced and hosted Wonders of the African World (1999), America Beyond the Color Line (2004), African American Lives (2006), Oprah’s Roots (2007), African American Lives 2 (2008), Looking for Lincoln (2009), Faces of America (2010), Finding Your Roots (2012), and Africa’s Great Civilizations (2017).


This event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Dr. Gayle Seymour at gayles@uca.edu or call 501-450-3295.