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Bodhi Tree Takes on Painful Past

Still’s ‘And They Lynched Him on a Tree’ is the centerpiece of the nonprofit organization’s next concert


Stars seemed to align for Bodhi Tree Concerts’ upcoming events. Now in its ninth season of producing benefit concerts showcasing local talent, the nonprofit last year began considering ways to celebrate Black History Month.Diana and Walter DuMelle, the husband-and-wife founders of Bodhi Tree, were approached by their friend, well-known San Diego conductor David Chase. He suggested they collaborate on presenting a work by the late composer/conductor William Grant Still. An African American, Still was a part of the Harlem Renaissance before moving to Los Angeles, where he conducted major orchestras and composed symphonies and film scores.On Saturday and Sunday, Bodhi Tree Concerts will present Still’s “And They Lynched Him on a Tree,” a powerful choral and spoken-word piece, with Chase conducting. The Martin Luther King Jr. Community Choir San Diego (also known as MLK Choir) will begin the program — titled “The Long Dark Shadow” — with its inspiring gospel and spiritual songs.“This concert was perfect synergy,” Walter DuMelle said. “As well as doing their own songs, MLK Choir members will be in the Still performance. So, it was natural that the concert’s proceeds go to the choir’s charitable scholarship fund for performing-arts students.”

As MLK Choir director Ken Anderson explained, the MLK Community Choir Scholarship Fund provides awards of up to $3,000 each to graduating high school seniors. In addition to conducting the program’s gospel/spiritual section, Anderson will play piano as local singer Dale Fleming performs “Strange Fruit,” a song made famous by Billie Holiday.“Strange Fruit,” recorded in 1939, and Still’s choral work, which premiered a year later, both decried the lynching of black men. Anderson said each performance will be introduced to give history and context to this painful topic.“And I’ll talk about our gospel and spiritual songs,” said Anderson, who is known for his infectious enthusiasm as he conducts the MLK Choir. “I do that everywhere, even in black churches. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know the history or understand the ‘code songs’ (with hidden references). I educate everywhere we go.”“And They Lynched Him” will feature contralto Judith Malone and narration by Brother Michael L. Henderson. Anderson noted that Still wrote it like a movie score, where the music enhances the action in each scene. The work is unusual in that composer Still’s instructions are for two separate choirs — one black, one white.“The MLK Choir is mixed — race, age and gender,” said Walter DuMelle, a baritone who will sing in the white choir. “For this piece, the choral groups are separated by race and then they ‘rainbow up’ at the end.”The program deals with tough material, but that suits Bodhi Tree.“We knew 2020 would be special,” Diana DuMelle said. “It’s an election year. We wanted our season to be pointed and make statements.“Music is a powerful way to understand difficult subjects. There’s a balance. We produce Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operas along with more serious productions.”Walter DuMelle emphasized that the concerts aren’t school lessons, but high-quality entertainment. Bodhi Tree hires only local artists and each event’s proceeds go to a selected nonprofit organization.The DuMelles said the benefactors appreciate the donation, which is at least $500. But groups are especially grateful for the opportunity to introduce their organizations to audiences who may be unfamiliar with their work.“We have a dedicated group of supporters,” Diana DuMelle said. “For this production, which is large for us, we have a special anonymous donor. We’re grassroots. It’s tricky, but we’ve made it work for nine years.”


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