By Howard Pousner
As one of two nonwhite pupils attending a London secondary school of 1,500, Douglas Tappin, the son of Jamaican parents, was subjected to taunts and violence. Still, the strides being made by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders an ocean away felt a bit distant.
It wasn’t until the full-time barrister and part-time composer-librettist moved to Atlanta four years ago, to explore the intersection of faith and art at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, that King’s story began to breathe for him.
Now Tappin hopes to help spread the gospel of all that the assassinated leader gave the world through “I Dream,” a rhythm-and-blues opera receiving its world premiere, with a cast of 37 and an orchestra of 15, on the Alliance Theatre main stage Friday.
We talked to Tappin, 43, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for “I Dream” and is one its four co-producers, before the first preview this week of the Jasmine Guy-directed show.
Q: You and your co-producers have hopes of transferring “I Dream” to London and Broadway. But starting with a three-week run on one of Atlanta’s biggest stages, while being a new production company (Musical-Dramatic Arts) to town, seems a challenge in itself. Concerned?
A: Concerned about everything. I’m an artist and the subjectivity-objectivity war inside of me is being won by the wrong side. But we’re here because we’re confident and because we believe it’s the right thing to do. I believe that it’s the right story, this is the right way to tell the story and that it’s moving.
Up to now, we’re an unknown proposition, the piece is an unknown proposition. People are going to come expecting something. It’s probably going to be different than they expect. But I hope it exceeds everybody’s expectations. If we do that, we’ll be fine.
Q: At Mercer you wrote a musical about King David that you titled “King.” How did Atlantans react?
A: They would typically say, “You can’t call it King because …” The first couple of times, I was like, “Well, why not?”
“Because, you fool. This is King’s city, no one is going to take any ‘King’ piece seriously if it’s not about Martin Luther King!”
Q: So how did you get from “King” to “I Dream?”
A: I wasn’t in a hurry to write it, for a number of reasons. Because I thought this is somebody who is not only too recent in memory but too recent in memory here. And I’d seen people attempt to do similar things, and saw how difficult it had been trying to find the support — culturally and politically and within the family. And I thought that this was never gonna work.
The thing that began to move me toward doing it was my sitting down with people face to face and asking them, “So who was Martin Luther King to you?” And folks began to tell stories of being in jail with him and marching with him. Then suddenly this story that had been quite distant to me began to come to life. And I realized how the city really loved this man.
Q: More recently you’ve met with MLK’s sister Christine King Farris and his daughter, Bernice King, who I understand gave you feedback after hearing the song “Queen” about her mother, Coretta Scott King.
A: I’d written [Coretta] as a resentful wife whose husband was always away, someone who I could expect my wife to be if I was away for 280 days a year. …
And she said, “My mother was never like that. My mother was never resentful. My mother knew who she was marrying when she married Martin Luther King Jr. And she knew what marrying Martin Luther King Jr. meant.”
[Through Bernice, I started to see Coretta] as a wife who understood from an early time that it wasn’t about if he would die doing this, she was certain that he would. And the song now has been rewritten. She now begins to say [Tappin begins singing]: “No regrets now, no surprise. At the start, I saw the end. Nothing veiled or unforeseen. I knew what life with him would really mean. We might not share golden years, may not see another spring … ”
It’s more powerful because of the family insight.
Q: Are there notes that “I Dream” hits that may surprise even veterans of the movement?
A: I tried to show a Martin Luther King that people don’t know — to show him distraught and ready to give up, as he says he was, in the middle of the [Montgomery bus] boycott when the [threatening] phone calls come and when the porch has been bombed.
I tried to demonstrate my understanding of what this man’s heart was. Not to represent him as a god or a hero, though he is a hero, but to show the humanity.
Q: What does the future hold for “I Dream” beyond its run here?
A: There’s nothing particularly set out. Conversations have probably been held with people as far afield as South Africa, but I would never say that this should go through a particular path. I would hope somehow it could move around to different cities and different countries and tell a story to people, like me, who didn’t know it.
And move them, because the more I read the more I realized how significant it was that, in the middle of a violent culture, someone comes up with this ridiculous, almost, idea that nonviolence is the way to overturn that. That love and not fighting back is the way to turn a country around, which is astonishing.
People need to still hear that all over the country, all over the world. But Atlanta, have to start here.
Final previews 8 Wednesday-Thursday (tickets $25-$60). Friday-July 31. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. $32.50-$75. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. Tickets at Woodruff Arts Center box office, 404-733-5000, www.woodruff centertickets.org.