October 2007 Issue
The Road to Freedom
Cincinnati Opera presents a new work based on the life of Ripley abolitionist John P. Parker.
“The man turned over restlessly, with his face away from the chair and the pistols. I reasoned it out that the child would be on the woman’s side (of the bed), because she was the one to take care of it during the night. With this in mind, (I) made my way on my hands and knees across the floor. As I was about to peer around the corner of the footboard, I heard the door close behind me. I certainly felt I was in a predicament shut in the room with a desperate man and a noisy woman, in search of someone else’s baby.” –– from His Promised Land
In the autobiography, His Promised Land, former slave John P. Parker vividly recounts his role in the Underground Railroad. This month, Cincinnati Opera pays homage to the significance of those rescue missions near Ripley –– which took place between 1845 and 1865 –– in the world premiere of “The Rise for Freedom: The John P. Parker Story.” The opera will be staged Oct. 13–21 at the Aronoff Center. Cincinnati Opera commissioned the work, following the success of a musical based on the life of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who chose to kill her daughter rather than see her be returned to a life of slavery.
“John P. Parker’s story is operatic enough,” says Charmaine Moore, Cincinnati Opera’s director of education. “Adding music will only make it more so.”
Composer Adolphus Hailstork, who has worked with renowned conductors such as Lorin Maazel and Kurt Masur, was chosen to write the music. The Kentucky Symphony Orchestra will perform under the direction of James R. Cassidy.
The son of a white man and a slave, Parker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1827. Sold into slavery at age 8, he educated himself with books supplied by the master’s son and bought his freedom at age 18 with the $1,800 he earned working in an iron foundry.
During the Civil War, the abolitionist settled in the thriving river town of Ripley and devoted countless hours to helping others gain freedom: He served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, the secret society of men and women who assisted slaves across the Ohio River, which marked the border between North and South. Parker would often meet slaves in the woods on the southern side of the river and ferry them by boat to Ripley, a key stop on the way to the freedom awaiting in Canada.
“Rise For Freedom” begins as Parker –– a successful machine inventor and foundry owner by day –– is visited by Sroufe, a cruel Kentucky slave owner, who suspects the businessman’s involvement with the Underground Railroad. He drunkenly dares Parker to enter his land and try to steal his “property.”
Parker accepts the challenge. Under cover of darkness, he rescues a couple and their baby, who is held captive in Sroufe’s bedroom. During the rescue, the slave owner awakens and chases the group into the woods toward the emancipation the Ohio River represents.
“Parker’s rescue of the baby comes straight from his autobiography,” says Broadway playwright David Gonzalez, who wrote the libretto for the 45-minute opera. Gonzalez, who was nominated for a 2006 Drama Desk Award for “The Frog Bride,” couldn’t help but be moved by Parker’s story.
“It struck me as an example of his commitment, bravery and creativity — all aspects of his personality that I wanted to praise,” he says.
Peeping around the foot of the bed, I saw a bundle lying close to the edge. Without waiting to see what it was, I dragged it toward me, and getting a firm hold pulled it off the bed. As I did there was a creak of the bedsprings. I jumped to my feet and rushed to the door. I heard the stool upset and the pistols fall. I heard the quick breathing of the man as he sprung out of bed and began feeling around on the floor in the dark for his weapons. Opening the door with a jerk, I ran across the kitchen out into the yard, with the bundle still in my arms.
Parker wasn’t the only person who assisted slaves passing through Ripley. The village was also home to Presbyterian minister and abolitionist John Rankin, whose role in the Underground Railroad is recounted in the opera.
“[Back then] Ripley was referred to as ‘that abolitionist hellhole’ by Confederate officers,” says Betty Campbell, trustee of the John P. Parker Historical Society.
Founded in 1996 to preserve his legacy, the historical society manages the John P. Parker House, filled with relics of Ripley during its heyday as a prosperous river port. “Rise for Freedom” ticket holders will receive free admission to the refurbished Federal-style house in Ripley.
“It’s a good yarn,” Hailstork says of the Parker story. “It’s a really intense opera about a battle between two strong men, Parker on one end who helps slaves escape, [and] Sroufe who wants to keep them captive. They’ve both got very powerful personalities, and the battle between those two men is really what the piece is about.”
Bryan Collier’s illustration on pages 22 and 23 appears in the children’s picture book Freedom River by Doreen Rappaport (Jump at the Sun, 2000).