Strange Fruit (2005)an opera in two acts based on the novel by Lillian Smith
libretto by Joan Ross Sorkin
(2 hr. 20)
This opera is truly American, having as its root the jazz/blues style of music. Often a deep, pulsing bass is heard, a soaring clarinet or flute, a country fiddle. These characters create a mounting tension that culminates in chaos as the white townfolk gather for a lynching, and it is almost a carnival atmosphere. Afterward, those of Besss family, who have come too late to save him, join in a solemn prayer in which they ask forgiveness of their friend, Henry, in a gospel-based quintet that is sad beyond endurance.
—Alan Hall, Theatre in the Triangle
Strange Fruit is adapted from Lillian Smiths best-selling novel whose title was taken from the song made famous by Billie Holiday. Smiths 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 African-Americans, 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, the fictitious town in Strange Fruit, into potential powder kegs. The operas 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 the heroine, Nonnie Anderson, a young idealistic black woman who is deeply in love with Tracy Deen, a gentle, though disaffected white man 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, Nonnies 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 Eds arrival, a white revival meeting has come to town, and Tracys mother, Alma, suspicious of Tracys 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 Nonnies child and worn down by his domineering mother, becomes susceptible to the ministers 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 Tracys 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 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 Tracys death, is scouring the town for Big Henry, the Deens loyal houseboy and Tracys childhood companion. At the last minute, Nonnie tries to rescue the innocent Henry, but her efforts are too late. He 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 the racial harmony that still could be.