Joan Ross Sorkinhome.html

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Music by Chandler Carter
Libretto by Joan Ross Sorkin

Strange Fruit is a new American  opera, adapted from Lillian Smith’s best-selling novel whose title was taken from the famous Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit.” Smith’s book tells the tragic story of a secret interracial love affair in Georgia, circa 1920, and was immediately controversial when published in 1944 and banned by booksellers in various locales around the country. Like the book, the opera is a powerful tale of race, passion, betrayal, murder and revenge, but above all, depicts human frailty that afflicts both sides of the racial divide. The story is set against a backdrop of swiftly changing social and economic times where Negroes, fresh from the battlefields of World War I, were leaving the cotton fields of the Old South, some heading north, others displacing white unskilled workers in the factories and mills at home. Whites, in turn, fearing the winds of change, took refuge in their past, in their prejudice and in their God, further fanning the flames of racism and turning small backwater towns like Maxwell, Ga., the fictitious town in Strange Fruit, into potential powder kegs. The opera’s score, taking its musical vocabulary from the same period, is infused with blues, jazz and gospel, building on the traditions of popular American music.

Strange Fruit revolves around our heroine, Nonnie Anderson, age 21, an idealistic black girl who is deeply in love with Tracy Deen, age 24, a gentle, though disaffected white boy, adrift in his own life. They both live with their families in Maxwell with its invisible boundary between White Town and Colored Town. The story begins when Ed, Nonnie’s older brother returns to Maxwell for a visit from Washington, D.C. to persuade his sister to return north with him to escape the hopelessness and bigotry of their hometown. Nonnie resists, knowing that leaving home means losing her beloved Tracy, the father of her unborn child. At the same time as Ed’s arrival, a white revival meeting has come to town, and Tracy’s mother, Alma, suspicious of Tracy’s behavior, enlists the traveling minister to cajole Tracy to join the church and marry his high school sweetheart Dorothy. The vulnerable Tracy, frightened by the prospect of fathering Nonnie’s child and worn down by his domineering mother, becomes susceptible to the minister’s entreaties and concocts an unholy scheme to save Nonnie the shame of bearing the child out of wedlock. When Tracy comes to Nonnie to explain his plan and end their secret affair, she refuses to accept his betrayal and professes her love for him. Meanwhile, Ed has discovered that Nonnie is carrying Tracy’s child, and as Tracy tears himself from Nonnie, Ed murders him in a fit of rage.

In a moment of weakness and dizzy with grief, Nonnie aids her sister Bess and family friend, Dr. Sam Perry, the most well-respected Negro in town, in their plan to help Ed escape north. However, Nonnie is plagued by her duplicity when she learns that a white mob, eager to avenge Tracy’s death, is scouring the town for Big Henry, the Deen’s loyal houseboy and Tracy’s childhood companion. In the eleventh hour, Nonnie tries to come to Henry’s rescue, but her efforts are too late, and the innocent Henry is savagely lynched and burned in a sickening public display that shamefully resembles the atmosphere of a small-town carnival.

After the lynching, Maxwell puts its blinders back on and returns to its routines without any attempt to examine its own inhumanity. Yet Nonnie gives birth to her baby and parades him stoically around Maxwell in a show of human dignity and racial harmony that still could be.


New York City Opera
VOX 2003: 
Showcasing American Composers 

O’Neill Music Theater Conference

Hofstra University
Hofstra Opera Theatre
Two fully-staged scenes

Golden Fleece
Composers’ Chamber Theatre
Scenes in concert
2004 and 2005

Golden Fleece
Composers’ Chamber Theatre
Literary Landmarks, NYC
Three fully-produced scenes

World Premiere
Long Leaf Opera
Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, NC
(commissioned, 2004)

Strange Fruit in Concert
presented by The Harlem School of the Arts 
in association with NYCity Opera
February 27 and March 1, 2009

Bleecker Street Opera
(formerly Amato Opera)
New Composer’s Forum
40-minute presentation
February 28, 2010

Score, libretto and production materials archived in 
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 
(New York Public Library, 2013)
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Photos: Long Leaf Opera