February 15, 2017
Pittsburgh Opera’s 2016-17 season concludes with the first world premiere in our illustrious 78-year history. Opera lovers, baseball fans, and Pittsburghers of all stripes will be dazzled by Daniel Sonenberg’s The Summer King - the Josh Gibson Story, at the Benedum Center April 29th – May 7th.
As baseball fans and proud Pittsburgh history enthusiasts know, Josh went from the sandlots of Pittsburgh’s North Side to the pinnacle of greatness on the baseball diamond in the Negro Leagues, before ultimately being enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
The opera begins with a father and son debating about great baseball players. When the father mentions Josh Gibson, the son thinks his father is living in the past. But as his father retorts, “Who’s got those numbers today?”
The Summer King follows Josh at key points in his life, including his playing days in the Negro Leagues as well as in Mexico, where he was awarded the MVP award while playing for the Veracruz Azules. The robust supporting characters include his wife Helen, who dies in childbirth, his girlfriend Grace, sung by the legendary Denyce Graves in her Pittsburgh Opera debut, and teammates such as Sam Bankhead and Cool Papa Bell.
Also featured in prominent roles are the gregarious Gus Greenlee, who owned not just the Pittsburgh Crawfords but also the legendary Crawford Grill in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and Wendell Smith, an intrepid reporter for the celebrated African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier.
Like all African Americans at the time, Josh was prohibited from playing in the Major Leagues by what was disingenuously referred to as a “gentlemen’s agreement” among the Major League clubs. Sadly, Josh died at the age of 35, felled by a stroke shortly before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Pittsburgh Opera is proud and privileged to premiere The Summer King, Josh Gibson’s story.
Pittsburgh Opera’s annual Student Matinee will introduce 2,600+ school children grades 3-12 to this lively, colorful opera on Thursday, May 4th at the Benedum Center.
Josh Gibson™ used with permission of Josh Gibson Enterprise, Inc., c/o Luminary Group LLC.
The Summer King was commissioned by Portland Ovations, with development by American Opera Projects and deeply appreciated continuing support for the Pittsburgh Opera world premiere from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Summer King has received major support from American Opera Projects, the National Endowment for the Arts, Bob Crewe Foundation, Maine Arts Commission and University of Southern Maine. The Summer King received its first public presentation as a concert performance on May 8, 2014 at Merrill Auditorium, Portland, Maine under the auspices of Portland Ovations in collaboration with the University of Southern Maine. Pittsburgh Opera is developing it into a fully-staged production, with lighting, costumes, sets, a full orchestra in the pit, and so forth for its world premiere in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Opera has also worked with the composer to develop additional material for the world premiere.
Based on the life of baseball Hall of Famer Josh Gibson
- Sat, Apr 29, 2017 * 8:00 PM
- Tue, May 2, 2017 * 7:00 PM
- Fri, May 5, 2017 * 7:30 PM
- Sun, May 7, 2017 * 3:00 PM
ALSO: Thursday, May 4th: Student Matinee performance at 10:30 AM
Where: Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, 237 7th Street, Pittsburgh
Run Time: 2 hours, 12 minutes, including two intermissions
Sung in English with English texts projected above the stage
Please email Chris Cox for reservations
- Photo Call (Monday, April 10th, 12:30 PM) – location TBD
- Full Dress Rehearsal (Thursday, April 27th, 7:00 PM), Benedum
- Free Community Engagement events
- Brown Bag Concert (April 1st)
- Opera Up Close (April 9th)
- WQED Preview (April 22nd & 28th)
- “Creating an Opera” (April 23rd)
- Meet the Artists (May 2nd)
- Audio Commentary (May 2nd)
- Josh Gibson Foundation Reception (May 7th)
- For crusading Pittsburgh Courier journalist, Wendell Smith, seeing baseball's color barrier broken had an extra level of significance. In college, a major league scout told Smith he wished that he could sign him but couldn't due to the color barrier.
- Five Pittsburgh sports legends will appear as supernumeraries in one or more performances of The Summer King. Former Pirates Al Oliver and Sean Casey, and former Steelers Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier and Charlie Batch’s participation symbolizes that while Josh's athletic greatness may have gone unnoticed by much of the white public in his day, Pittsburgh's sports heroes recognize him as one of their own.
- Many of Josh’s descendants are alive and well, and still live in Pittsburgh. Great-grandson Sean Gibson is the Executive Director of The Josh Gibson Foundation, which develops programs that help children of every ability level reach their potential.
- Pittsburgh Opera chorister Skip Napier’s grandfather Eudie Napier was Josh’s teammate on the 1946 Homestead Grays. Skip, a baritone, is a classically trained singer.
Full information on The Summer King's cast and artistic team can be found on The Summer King's landing page.
SCENE 1 Cut Off Man barbershop, Brooklyn, NY, 1957
Boys playing stickball hit a ball into a barbershop. When the radio plays “Did Ya See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?,” the Elder and Younger Barbers argue about the Negro League and the legacy of Josh Gibson. The Elder Barber remembers Gibson’s incredible accomplishments and describes the day that Gibson hit a ball completely out of Yankee Stadium.
SCENE 2 Yankee Stadium, NY, 1930
The Elder Barber imagines a Radio Announcer describing the epic battle between pitcher Broadway Connie Rector and a young Josh Gibson.
SCENE 3 A park in Homestead, PA, 1930
Spectators respond to Josh’s tremendous home run. Helen, his young wife, arrives with blackberry pie. They look forward to their future (Beautiful Afternoon) and Helen tells Josh that she’s pregnant. A musical interlude turns dark. Josh sadly reflects on Helen’s death giving birth to their twin children and his commitment to his remaining love—the game of baseball.
SCENE 4 Crawford Grill, Pittsburgh, PA, 1935
Players and fans of the Pittsburgh Crawfords celebrate and praise Mr. Gus Greenlee, owner of both the Crawford Grill and the team. Josh arrives with Hattie, and Wendell Smith, from The Pittsburgh Courier, introduces himself to Josh. The daily number is called. Grace is the winner; she bet 440, which was Josh’s batting average the previous season. Smith suggests that with numbers like that, Josh might make history by playing for a white team and breaking the color barrier, an idea his teammates, led by Double Duty Radcliffe, disdain. Josh and his teammates scoff at Smith’s idea, but Josh is secretly intrigued by it. Grace persuades him to consider it.
SCENE 5 Wendell Smith’s office, Pittsburgh Courier, March 1938
Wendell “Smitty” Smith asks Josh to consider working together to break the color barrier. Smith recalls his experience with segregation in college and admits that he was never “lightning” like Josh. Smith says Josh could change everything. Josh commits to think about it.
SCENE 6 Josh’s apartment, Pittsburgh, PA, March 1938
Josh and Grace, now a couple, return from a night on the town. She scolds him, describes his greatness, and urges him to broaden his dreams.
SCENE 7 Owner’s office, Griffith Stadium, Washington, DC, April 1940
Clark Griffith and his nephew meet with Josh and dangle the notion of playing for the Senators. The meeting has clearly been set up to appease the black press. After complimenting Josh’s skills, they warn him about the consequences of playing in the majors. The exchange grows threatening (Men such as we). The Griffiths pompously describe their responsibility and their foremost concern with Josh’s best interests, making it clear they have no intention of signing him. Clark walks Josh to the door and tells him, “Boy, there’s a colored facility at the top of the stairs.”
SCENE 8 Outside the Griffith Office, and Crawford Grill, April 1940
Josh, demoralized and frustrated, says all he ever wanted was his wife Helen and the game. He arrives at the Crawford Grill, where players are discussing a lucrative offer from Mexico that hinges on Josh’s participation. Smith wants Josh to stay and fight, but Josh eagerly accepts the deal (Hello Mexico). Grace agrees, “as long as it’s temporary.”
SCENE 1 Escambron Stadium, Vera Cruz, Mexico, October 1941
During a celebration featuring Mexican music, Josh is heralded as player of the year by Señor Alcalde. Sam tells Josh about an offer from back home matching the Mexican pay they receive. Grace is excited to return home, but Josh celebrates the good life the players enjoy in Mexico. As the revelers leave, Grace tells Josh that she’s not staying in Mexico. Hattie, now with Double Duty Radcliffe, shares a joint with Josh as he and his friends celebrate “high living.” Josh complains that his head isn’t feeling so well, and as the celebration begins to spin out of control, Josh proclaims his need to go home, and then loses his balance and collapses.
SCENE 2 Wendell Smith’s office, Pittsburgh Courier, March 1945
Branch Rickey tells Smith that he is proudly ready to hire a black player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey needs someone “with the spirit to fight back, but ... the guts not to.” Smith tells Rickey, “I may have a name for you.”
SCENE 3 An empty ballfield, Homestead, PA, October 1945
Josh, looking haggard and bloated, stands alone on a field hitting balls, lamenting that nothing’s changed for him in the four years since Mexico, and then expresses agony at something pressed against his head. Players, including Sam Bankhead, engage in a pickup game. Trash Talking Player takes a turn at bat with Josh catching behind him. The two trade insults, with Josh eventually getting the better of the situation. Sam urges the younger players to respect Josh, and describes his famous Yankee Stadium home run. Wendell Smith then arrives, excitedly telling the news that Jackie Robinson has been hired by the Dodgers. Josh is crestfallen (I got my own league).
SCENE 4 Crawford Grill (now closed), October 1945
Josh has busted into the old Crawford Grill, bringing his own beer cans. Grace chides Josh for being too caught up in his “own league,” asking him, “You think you can drink your way into the big leagues?” Josh talks of imaginary conversations with Joe DiMaggio. Grace tells him that her husband is returning from war, and that she is leaving. She describes the dreams she had of transcending her dreary existence in a loveless marriage with few material comforts; she realizes that she has to face her real life and abandon her fantasies for Josh—fantasies he never shared.
SCENE 5 Josh’s bedroom, Homestead, PA, January 1947
Josh speaks intently to an imaginary Joe DiMaggio, asking “You ain’t gonna answer me?” Josh says that he will die that night. Sam pays his respects to his dying friend and tells him that Jackie Robinson is going to join the Dodgers. They listen to the news on the radio as Josh withdraws into his own delirium. Helen’s ghost visits and the two remember their hopes for a bright future (Beautiful Afternoon). Helen disappears. Josh realizes where he is and speaks to Sam about his fabled Yankee Stadium home run: “It went out a long way . . . I hope you’ll remember that.” Josh dies. Sam remembers the fallen Summer King, who
led all Negro Leaguers to the Promised Land, but was denied entry himself. He then contemplates his own plight, and that of his contemporaries—players who were either too old, or not great enough, to enjoy the fruits of integration. The Elder Barber extolls Josh Gibson’s greatness as Sam wonders about fate, asking “Did we need to be greater men than our king to avoid our king’s fate?”
SCENE 6 Cut Off Man barbershop, Brooklyn, NY, 1957
The Elder and Younger Barbers continue their argument until the Younger Barber puts on “the damn game.”
EPILOGUE Outside Yankee Stadium, NY, 1930
Children play stickball outside Yankee Stadium. The Radio Announcer calls the legendary home run. The bat cracks and the Streets Kids freeze, looking straight up to the sky, asking “Where’d it go? Is it fair?” The kids scatter and one boy emerges with the baseball (Did ya see?).
– Synopsis adapted from Daniel Sonenberg
Josh Gibson deserved to be as famous in his day as Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig. But he was overlooked by the mainstream white media because of the color of his skin.
These Pittsburgh sports legends are appearing as supernumeraries in The Summer King. Their participation symbolizes that while Josh's athletic greatness may have gone unnoticed by much of the general public, Pittsburgh's sports heroes recognize him as one of their own.
Pittsburgh Opera and the Josh Gibson Foundation are grateful to the following people for supporting The Summer King by appearing as supernumeraries:
- Lead Production Sponsor: PNC
- Production Sponsor: People’s Natural Gas
- Season Media Sponsor: WQED-FM
- Tuesday performance sponsor: Ambridge Regional Distribution and Manufacturing Center.
- Select community events received funding from OPERA America’s Opera Fund