One of the really fantastic aspects of being a critic is discovering “new to me” talent. Being in the Chicago Arts scenes, it is next to impossible to see everything, hear everything, enjoy everything. With this in mind, Harris Theater was staging a world premiere performance, Adrian Dunn’s Emancipation, and I was intrigued. Teamed with the Rize Orchestra and the Adrian Dunn Singers, Emancipation was a magnificent night of live music with a pointed message. Messages actually. More on that in a minute. Adrian Dunn himself is a conductor, composer, artist, singer and founder of both the Rize Orchestra and the Adrian Dunn Singers. The Rize Orchestra was originally founded in 2019 to address the lack of diversity in the orchestral world. This Windy City based troupe of musicians has made tremendous strides in establishing equality in the classical music genre in just a few short years. As for the Adrian Dunn Singers, there were 15 total, sharing their remarkable talents center stage. Seven powerhouse women, all adorned in ethereal white gowns, and eight gifted men, all clad in tuxedos.
“How are you doing tonight, Harris Theater?” An enthusiastic Adrian Dunn inquired at the top of a show. A program absolutely filled to the brim with a varied collection of music; from spirituals, to hip-hop. Classical to gospel. The net cast purposely wide, but with the unifying message “unapologetically centered on Black folks”. Also sharing with the audience, we were all to be “part of history tonight” as the concert was being filmed and recorded for an upcoming live album. Dunn stated “I’m so glad you are here tonight” and the feeling was quickly proven mutual. As for the name of the show, “Emancipation is freedom” and Dunn humbly retorted “I stand on the shoulders of the ancestors” and “I hope something tonight helps you feel free.”
As for the music, it was a sumptuous blend of classic and contemporary. If “Black folks are the authors of American music”, Dunn was determined to give credit to everyone who deserved it and who didn’t have the opportunity to bask in it in their lifetimes. Including Nina Simone, Biggie, Whitney Elizabeth Houston, Michael Jackson and Prince…in death they were not remembered for the geniuses they were.” To pay homage, the songs “Battle of Jericho” and “Glory!” spoke of the importance of “the walls in your life must come down.” Including some very important barriers Dunn faced early in his own career as well. “When I started in classical music” I was told I would have to keep “my Blackness checked at the door.” When asking “what does it mean to be Black and free in the 21st century?”, surly part of the answer is to stop putting limitations on someone because of their race, gender and sexuality. A topic covered pointedly in the song “Revolutionary Love”, credited to outspoken author James Baldwin as inspiration. “God sees you little Black boy” Dunn proclaimed. “I see you and it gets better.”
The first set wrapped with a dynamic duo of soloists joining the Rize Orchestra on the spiritually fueled “My Soul’s Been Anchored” featuring Tierra Whetstone-Christian and “Ride On, Jesus of Justice” featuring Lynnesha Crump. Proving no live performance goes off without a hitch, a troublesome and uncooperative microphone stand ruffled no feathers for about eight minutes. “We know help is on the way” Dunn cooed as the choir waited for a couple of stage hands to quickly work their proverbial magic. Ah, to be as cool and collected as Dunn under unscripted pressure.
If the first set of the show was an exploration of faith through music, post intermission was something else entirely. “It’s the second half. It’s time to turn up!” Sharing “every person deserves the right to dream” I am convinced Dunn was speaking about himself more than the members of the audience. “Have you been dreaming about anything lately. Go get it!” For a classical concert, the next vignette pushed both envelopes and buttons. Exclaiming “Black is essential” and “I love Black women, don’t you?” a tribute to songstresses Billie Holiday & Nina Simone included the singles “Freedom”, “Black Boy Prayer” and “Strange Fruit”. Exclaiming it is “ok to be different” sharing poignant lyrics dedicated to “ancestors who hung and strung from a tree”.
From professional to personal inspiration, it was now time for Dunn to look inward. Pronouncing the importance of his faith in his childhood development, the next hymn was “dedicated to my daddy, the head in church and my house.” “I Love the Lord” featured Patrick Dailey and “Give Me Jesus” featured LaQuentin Jenkins, were spectacular tributes indeed. As voices soared, a father couldn’t possibly be prouder.
Before the show’s conclusion, Dunn waxed poetic. “It means the world you are here. Can I say thank you?” The final songs “Mountains” and “Get Free” took the entire audience to church and beyond. If his goal was to create a moment where Black music is to be respected, revered, enjoyed, honored and treasured, Adrian Dunn Emancipation hit the proverbial ball out of the park. Inspiring and entertaining, Emancipation is the second in a trilogy of world premieres between Dunn and Company and the Harris Theater. I wait with baited breath to see exactly what Adrian Dunn, Rize Orchestra and The Adrian Dunn Singers do for a now highly anticipated encore.
Adrian Dunn Emancipation played at the Harris Theater on April 29, 2022.