Students Honor Martin Luther King

By Ben Anderson

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., four a cappella groups, students from the J-Term course Move2Change and the newly formed student group, the Oratory Society came together this past Monday to put on the “MLK Oratorio: A Celebration in Song, Speech and Dance”. This was the sixteenth year since the show’s initial conception by the event’s founder and spiritual leader, Twilight Scholar Francois Clemmons. This year’s event was to serve as a passing of the torch, as Clemmons is now retired and the group who originally served as its driving force — the Spiritual Choir — has been disbanded.

The event opened with the song “Shed a Little Light”, performed by the Mamajamas. With the lights in Mead Chapel dimmed, the song began as the soloist, Nick Rehmus ’16, walked up the aisle carrying a single candle and singing quietly. As he reached the stage, the lights were raised on the rest of the group and the song truly began. “Shed a Little Light” proved to be a solid opening for the Oratorio, a bit quiet and reserved at moments but an image of the mood for the rest of the evening.

The strongest piece of the evening, for me, came next, titled “King in Dialogue”. This piece featured members of the Oratory Society, with Cheswayo Mphanza ’16 reading quotes from King. As Mphanza read a variety of quotes that epitomized some of the key points of King’s philosophies, the different members of the Oratory Society responded with quotes from other important figures throughout history, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X and Henry David Thoreau.

The different quotes chosen each were presented as a sort of commentary on King’s ideas, creating a back and forth between King and others who shared a similar path as King, though each with their own take and perspective. The juxtaposition of these quotes proved to be a thought provoking dialogue and really served to engage the audience in a thoughtful reflection on King and his beliefs, setting the stage for later performances.

Another relatively new student group, JusTalks, was also featured in the program. At the most recent J-Term JusTalks event, participating students were asked to respond anonymously to the question, “What does a better Middlebury look like to you?” These questions were collected and read aloud at the oratorio. Four members of the Oratory Society got on stage and first explained JusTalks and the question they had asked students. Then, students both on stage and throughout the balconies of Mead Chapel erupted in a percussive “stomp and clap” performance, alternating back and forth from the original question to the various responses received.

Many of the responses called for different forms of action on campus to further promote tolerance and equality here at the College. The students challenged complacency within the current system, urging the student body to remember that though progress has been made towards equal rights for all, institutionalized oppression is still very much so a reality. Though the initial question seemed, at surface level, unrelated to the theme of the evening, the answers read really tied it all together and proved to be a strong addition to the program.

After this, the a cappella group, the Bobolinks, performed their rendition of KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See”. While the performance was quite strong — I particularly enjoyed the soloist — the song itself seemed a bit misplaced among the other events of the night.

The centerpiece of the night’s program was a reading of King’s most famous speech, “I Have a Dream”. At first, two members of the Oratory Society stood on stage, reading King’s words. As the speech progressed, more and more speakers joined the group, jumping back and forth between speakers. I was impressed by the choreography of the voices — if I can call it that — as some parts stayed with a single speaker for many lines, while other parts of the speech jumped around more sporadically, the rhythm of these alternations matching the changing tone of the speech.

Two songs in the program, first one by the Paradiddles and another featuring all of the vocalists, were accompanied by dancers from the J-Term class Move2Change. These performances added an interesting and dynamic element to the night’s pieces and the student dancers did a great job of evoking the emotions of the evening through the dances, especially considering that not all of the students in the class were dance majors.

“The performance planning for the Move2Change class began with photographs from the civil rights movement,” said Aoife Duna ’16.5, a student in the class. “We then transformed these scenes of arrests, marches, and solidarity into a moving tableau set for the chapel space. The class has spent the past several weeks exploring creative activism and generating small pieces in class to speak of issues ranging from the post-racial myth to gender inequality.”

The strongest individual performance came from Debanjan Roychoudhury ’16 who read King’s speech. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” This speech was the last speech King delivered, on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. Interestingly—or perhaps ominously—King’s speech focuses quite a bit on both threats to his life and a previous assassination attempt where he was stabbed and barely survived. Roychoudhury did a phenomenal job of capturing King’s energy in his speech and it was fitting to match the last speech of the night with King’s final speech.

As Roychoudhury spoke the final lines of “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” the vocalists — standing in the balconies — quietly began the first of two final songs. The growing sounds of their voices gave even more power to King’s words and these final two songs were the strongest songs of the night. By the end of “This Little Light of Mine,” even the audience had joined in on the clapping and singing, making for an emotional ending to an emotional night.