Collier’s Weekly: There’s an Essential, Haunting Performance Underway at the August Wilson Center

“We Shall Not Be Moved” is not only a great show — it’s a reminder of the power of art.
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I can think of few cultural experiences more essential than “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the remarkable production by Pittsburgh Opera currently underway at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center.

Essential can be used as a generic term when one of us writer types is trying to praise something; it’s easy to use words such as powerful, incredible, remarkable and essential interchangeably as synonyms for “really, really good.” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” which debuted in Philadelphia in 2017 and is now in only its third United States run, is indeed really, really good. But I don’t merely use the word essential in that sense — I use it to mean that, yes, it is absolutely imperative that everyone see this production.

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The show, directed by Bill T. Jones and written by Daniel Bernard Roumain (music) and Marc Bamuthi Joseph (libretto), is a blend of movement, music, projection and writing. While the singing is often operatic (particularly by the world-renowned John Holiday, one of the most remarkable vocal artists I’ve ever heard), there are elements of a half-dozen genres deployed in a haunting, captivating cocktail of sound.

The show uses these varied modes to deliver a gripping story: A group of forgotten Philadelphia teens supports one another, the only family they’ve ever known. When a moment of charged street violence turns deadly, they flee, hiding out in a house with a terrible history. A flawed yet good-hearted Latina police officer tries to intervene; things get complicated.

In its best moments, art can offer a perspective and cross-cultural understanding that our increasingly sequestered lives often deny us. Watching “We Shall Not Be Moved” is to encounter grim yet genuine realities — about the complete failure of education systems in many parts of the country, about the broken relationship between police and communities in urban centers, about gender and identity in a hostile world. It would take a heart of stone — or at least a mind of decidedly determined ignorance — to not be inspired by and, if necessary, changed by this show.

“We Shall Not Be Moved” has another trick up its sleeve, however: It’s a history lesson.

While the main narrative of the story is fictional (in the specific; in the abstract, it’s common), the story takes place in the shadow of real tragedy. In 1985, Philadelphia police instigated a standoff with members of the MOVE organization, a Christian-environmentalist collective living in a row house in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood. The group had been falsely declared a terrorist organization; after tear gas and threats failed to prompt a surrender, the police bombed the building.

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The resulting blaze killed 11 people (including five children) and destroyed 61 homes, leaving 250 people homeless. (The city eventually built replacement housing but cut corners; the replacement homes were condemned within a decade.)

If you’re older than me, you might remember this tragedy. Unfortunately, it was news to me; despite growing up in the same state as the MOVE massacre and despite attending college within a few hours’ drive of Cobbs Creek, I had never heard of it.

It is unfortunate that it takes art to tell us essential pieces of our own history. The silver lining, though, is that works like “We Shall Not Be Moved” are capable of delivering these lessons with honesty and perspective. It is shameful that I didn’t know about MOVE until now; it is fortunate that I was able to be instructed so beautifully.

In an era where many are actively working to remove all traces of reality from our history books, that’s essential.

“We Shall Not Be Moved” will be performed this Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday; Thursday is a community matinee at 10:30 a.m., with discounted tickets available.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly