Friday night, Sept. 27, the Lawrence community gathered in Harper Hall to reunite with class of 2010 alum and Fulbright scholar Dr. Derrell Acon for what would not merely be a guest recital. Conjoining vocal performance, poetry and scholarly lecture, Dr. Acon let his audience know early on “this is not that kind of party.” Throughout the night he would sing his refrain “Blackitty-black!” as a reminder that he was not interested in conforming to any expectations of his performance. The night was a moving tribute to the intersection of art and activism in general, as well as specific to his goals of advancing the black experience. A tall order for one man and his accompanist, but Dr. Acon was more than up to the task.
Dr. Acon began the evening with a selection of music about the relationships between fathers and sons. First, a piece from the 1940s musical Lost in the Stars. In the title track of the show, a black Anglican priest from a small South African village experiences a crisis of faith. His son, Absalom, has been jailed after killing a white man during a robbery. The priest is grief-stricken and horrified that he can’t bring his son home — that his son will likely never come home. Acon’s next song had another tone entirely. “Love in the Thirties” featured Acon performing both as father and son, changing the tone and pitch of his voice between lines. The son asks his dad many questions, including, “Dad, how do you know everything!” And as his questions grow more mature — “What is a soul?” and, “Who am I?” — so too does the son’s voice. The song itself was quite touching, as well as showcased Acon’s theatricality and abilities beyond those of operatic vocals. As the final piece in the father and son section, Acon performed an aria from the opera Macbeth. As he elaborated later in the night, Acon prefers to perform his take on classics by including his whole self within them, his entire history and personality. To limit the inclusion of himself, he feels, is to lie to his audience. In return, he asks his audience to see him entirely, not to imagine that he is anyone but who he presents as. He specified that when black performers take on roles traditionally played by white performers, the audience should not imagine that they are white or otherwise colorless. The context of the performer must say present in the performance.
“That was, that was, that was, that was the section of fathers and sons, this, this, this is ‘Blackitty-black!’” Acon blended his speech and song as he began a poem he wrote almost 10 years ago. The poem told the story of a black boy born in the suburbs who thinks he is the only black boy in the world. Through his life he lives in the projects, then the ghetto, lives the “reality of being a poor teen” and watches corrupt cops plant evidence on an innocent person. At night, he cannot sleep, not because of the sirens, but because he hears his sister singing. He promises himself, “No more trying to understand the whole world and save the whole thing singlehandedly.” He vows to understand the world “one story at a time” and begin with his own.
Upon the poem’s completion, Acon elaborated on his thesis that “the key to solving racial injustices is through communication.” Communication would lead to understanding which would lead to love.
Acon then turned to exploring the history of black art and black artists. He brought up black artists who wrote against the idea of “black art,” on the basis that art should not be restricted to the identity of the artist. Acon argues that the inclusion of an artist’s identity makes art more full, more whole and more contextualized. It does not exclude an audience from participating, but invites them to understand something else. Acon said he is “no longer interested in performing what feels rooted in a museum.” He wants to empower performers to include their experiences in their performance.
Dr. Acon quoted W. E. B. Du Bois’ words on “double consciousness,” the experience of an individual whose identity is divided into several facets. Du Bois uses the term specifically to talk about the “two-ness” of being black and being American, two identities which at times feel opposed. Acon then sang a folk song/spiritual, “Lord, How Come Me Here.” The song’s lyrics consist mostly of the title repeated until he sang, “I wish I never was born.” Acon again displayed his performance prowess by giving each line renewed anguish, regret and pain as he paced and wailed across the stage. He changed his demeanor entirely to recite “I Too Am America” by Langston Hughes followed by “Why Is We Americans,” by Amiri Baraka. Acon prefaced the Baraka saying that while Hughes is optimism, Baraka is aggression. Acon stated he wishes to examine and present the full experiences and feelings of Blacktivism. The Baraka performance invited the most audience participation, many murmurs of agreement and shouts of “yes!” as Acon recited Baraka’s list of reparations and repayments demanded. His passion on full display here, Acon paced throughout the audience and crumpled the papers he read from as he finished. When he again reached the stage and finished the poem, he concluded: “So that was a light ditty…” and the audience laughed and applauded greatly.
The last set, Acon said, was to be about God, a topic which Acon said is not clear cut in the African American community. In this set, Acon moved with his accompanist like a dance, as he returned to the stage for the final two songs. The conclusion of the hour was met with a standing ovation followed by a Q&A discussion.
Dr. Acon currently resides in Long Beach, Calif., where he is the Director of Engagement and Equity for the Long Beach Opera. He maintains an interest and life as a performer, scholar and administrator and doesn’t feel he has to choose.