“This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine”
With its resonant message of self-determination, gospel standard “This Little Light of Mine” crashed through many barriers during the 1960s civil rights movement. This Sunday, it will be part of a “freedom medley” at Ambassador Auditorium during “Sounds of the Civil Rights Movement: The Power of Song,” a theatrical revue depicting the history and individual stories behind civil right anthems.
“We take it all the way back to the very beginning, when they were pulling songs out of the black church,” explains writer/director September Penn, a Fuller Seminary student who views music and theater as key to her ministry. “For instance, there’s ‘Up Above My Head’: [singing] ‘Up above my head, I hear music in the air.’ You flip it to ‘I see freedom in the air,’ all of a sudden you have a freedom song. …
“We’re looking at the significance of music in the movement, and how music kind of glued it together, and helped to give hope, and helped to bring people together. They chose to be nonviolent, so they weren’t going to use a weapon, so essentially songs became their ammunition and helped to drive them along. We talk about the significance of nonviolence then, and how it’s encouraging with protests happening today.”
The cast of Fuller students and local artists includes guitarists Ted Perlman and Will Shine, the latter of whom plays Bob Dylan to Annalisse Weyes’ Joan Baez. Mainstream anthems popularized by Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday and Curtis Mayfield are followed by contemporary compositions like India.Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” and some originals. Bay Area jazz artist Kim Nalley targets 21st-century police brutality with her song “Big Hooded Black Man,” written in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder.
Penn was commissioned by St. Petersburg College in Florida in 2014 to write an original production that “talked about the music,” she says, and would help spur the community to greater participation in Martin Luther King Day of Service programs. It did. According to Penn, the first production was so successful that local volunteerism increased by 60 percent; it increased another 10 percent after the following year’s show. This year, she says, three St. Petersburg officers are flying here on their own dime to participate on Sunday. She’s also reached out to the Pasadena Police Department and LAPD officers about joining a scene addressing police brutality.
“One of the charges, as artists, is to continue to point to those issues in a way that’s engaging, that draws you in,” she observes. “You put in certain numbers to make people feel good, open up their hearts and then come back later and hit them with hard facts. But their hearts should be open.”
Power of Song presents “Sounds of the Civil Rights Movement” at the Ambassador Auditorium, 131 S. St. John Ave., Pasadena, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19; free admission. Tickets: Eventbrite.com/e/sounds-of-the-civil-rights-movement-the-power-of-song-tickets-30358214236. Info: (626) 696-8702. thepowerofsong.org, theambassadorauditorium.org