Josh Gibson is a Doomed Monarch in The Summer King

In the essential new production by the Pittsburgh Opera, the life story of the Negro Leagues' most famous slugger is rendered as a universal drama.




photo by david bachman photography. courtesy pittsburgh opera.
 

A hundred thousand Pittsburgh barstool debates have erupted over the subject of bronze — specifically, which sports heroes are most deserving of it. A stroll down the North Shore can feature visits with the likes of Clemente, Mazeroski and Rooney (as well as Fred Rogers, of course); add a trip to the lower Hill District and Lemieux can be found, as well.

For my money, though, one key statue is missing from the city’s roster. If we’re going to immortalize athletic achievement, perhaps no competitor from Pittsburgh’s past is more deserving of the treatment than Josh Gibson, the legendary catcher who still ranks among the finest ballplayers of all time — and almost certainly the best to never play for a Major League club.

The greatest legend of the Negro Leagues may not yet have a statue, but now, he does have an opera. In “The Summer King,” currently receiving a world-premiere run at the Benedum Center in a Pittsburgh Opera production, the famous slugger’s story is rendered as a tragedy; here, Gibson is a tormented king, plagued by loss (the death of his beloved wife, Helen, during childbirth), kept from his rightful throne by circumstance (had Gibson’s career peaked a few years later, perhaps it would’ve been he and not Jackie Robinson who first broke into the big leagues) and — perhaps — pride.

To head off a concern: No one need be intimidated by the idea of attending an opera, at least not in this case. “The Summer King” is sung in English, with full captions appearing above the stage. There’s nothing obtuse or toplofty about the production; to the contrary, it’s full of beautiful and very universal moments of theater, rendering its melodrama in terms more contemporary than classical. And while the music is undeniably modern, occasionally without the infectious melodies many novices associate with classical opera, it will captivate even the untrained ear. (Believe me — my ears are thoroughly untrained.)

Those with some added knowledge of the time period and baseball history will have plenty of added context; primary characters include legendary sportswriter Wendell Smith (played by Sean Panikkar), Gibson’s teammate Sam Bankhead (Kenneth Kellogg) and Pittsburgh Crawfords and Crawford Grill owner Gus Greenlee (Norman Shankle). The legends, stories and reality of the time period are all well-rendered.

Baseball fans will be captivated; those with no knowledge of Gibson or his milieu will be no less entranced. As Gibson, Alfred Walker is commanding and playful, effortlessly entertaining yet full of import and, eventually, heartache. (An unforgettable performance is also given by world-renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, as Grace, Gibson’s lover; another opera could be written for her character.)

“The Summer King” works not due to hometown pride or historic detail, but due to the grand drama of Gibson’s tale; while it’s all a matter of history, I won’t spoil the show by going into too much detail here. In short, upon viewing the show, the idea of an opera about Josh Gibson will no longer seem like a curiosity; it will seem like an inevitability.

As for that theoretical statue — I’d put it across the street from Clemente, at the foot of the bridge. Let the two greatest baseball players to call Pittsburgh home stand guard over the Allegheny for generations to come.

“The Summer King” has two more performances, scheduled for this Friday and Sunday. Details here.

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Hyperloop One Could Change How You Spend Your Weekends

Hyperloop One Could Change How You Spend Your Weekends

Hyperloop One plans to use high-speed pods that travel in low-pressure tubes to whisk people and freight at 700 miles an hour, cutting the travel time from Pittsburgh to Chicago to less than an hour.
Watch: Local Beverly's Birthdays Gets National Attention

Watch: Local Beverly's Birthdays Gets National Attention

NBC Nightly News profiled Megs Yunn of Irwin, who doles out birthday cheer 365 days a year.
Penguins Broadcaster Mike Lange Cutting Back This Season

Penguins Broadcaster Mike Lange Cutting Back This Season

Lange is entering his 43rd season of NHL broadcasting, all but one of which were spent with Pittsburgh
With 50 Shades of Silence, Darieth Chisolm Offers Her Voice and Support

With 50 Shades of Silence, Darieth Chisolm Offers Her Voice and Support

The longtime local newscaster’s website and forthcoming documentary, based on her own experience with non-consensual pornography, aim to provide victims with help and support.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

True Grit: Homestead Mayor Betty Esper Just Won't Back Down

True Grit: Homestead Mayor Betty Esper Just Won't Back Down

Homestead’s first and only woman mayor has worked tirelessly for her hometown during her 35-plus years in public office. As she faces reelection unopposed next month, the 84-year-old contemplates her role as the symbol of a gritty town fighting its way back.
Photo Essay: Silence on the Cell Block

Photo Essay: Silence on the Cell Block

A look inside the now-empty penitentiary on the banks of the Ohio.
Made in Pittsburgh: 5 Great Ideas

Made in Pittsburgh: 5 Great Ideas

Modern-day creation in Pittsburgh doesn’t just involve physical products; we also have a knack for hatching new ideas that can solve problems in innovative, unexpected ways. These locally based thinkers are applying big thoughts to bigger problems.
Restaurant Review: Scratch Food + Beverage is King of the Hill

Restaurant Review: Scratch Food + Beverage is King of the Hill

The Troy Hill neighborhood spot matures into a casual destination restaurant.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Hyperloop One Could Change How You Spend Your Weekends

Hyperloop One Could Change How You Spend Your Weekends

Hyperloop One plans to use high-speed pods that travel in low-pressure tubes to whisk people and freight at 700 miles an hour, cutting the travel time from Pittsburgh to Chicago to less than an hour.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Meet the Federal Galley Chefs

Meet the Federal Galley Chefs

We have the lowdown on who is cooking what in the new North Side food hall from the operators of Smallman Galley.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Read on for some under-the-radar ideas on how you and the kids can survive a rainy day this summer.

Comments


King Arthur's Sword Turns a Spot in Baldwin Into an Entertainment Destination

King Arthur's Sword Turns a Spot in Baldwin Into an Entertainment Destination

IQ Escape's new South Hills escape rooms elevate Crafthouse Stage & Grill and Legacy Lanes.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Encouraging Start Only a Start for The Steelers

Encouraging Start Only a Start for The Steelers

The season's first two victories were notched against mediocre competition. Eventually, the degree of difficulty is going to ratchet up considerably.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
#Gottahaveit: Take It To the Hoop

#Gottahaveit: Take It To the Hoop

Robert Hallett, Goldsmith, handcrafts the jewelry in his Oakmont shop.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Kingsman Sequel Leans Into the Crazy (And Turns Out Fun)

Kingsman Sequel Leans Into the Crazy (And Turns Out Fun)

Reviews of "Kingsman: The Golden Circle," "Friend Request" and "Brad's Status," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Furs We Favor for a Pittsburgh Winter Wedding

Furs We Favor for a Pittsburgh Winter Wedding

Tying the knot when it will be cold outside? These Pittsburgh brides combined warmth and elegance by choosing fur.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Explore New and Historic Homes at Doors Open Pittsburgh

Explore New and Historic Homes at Doors Open Pittsburgh

The public “behind-the-scenes” event gives participants access to some of the city’s more iconic buildings — and some of Pittsburgh’s most interesting residences.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Tuition Increases at the University of Pittsburgh

Tuition Increases at the University of Pittsburgh

School trustees voted this week to increase tuition for in-state and out-of-state students.

Comments