The No Tears Project, a four-day affair that kicked off on Saturday and stretches through Wednesday, is a multi-layered experience that pianist Christopher Parker and his wife, vocalist Kelley Hurt, have been growing with for seven years.
Rooted at the Oxford American – a quarterly magazine that focuses on the American South – the No Tears Project uses music and conversation to educate and engage communities with stories about civil rights. The arts outreach program aims to create “recognition as a precursor to reconciliation.”
The project’s Memphis run began Saturday with an education concert, which was a live performance for youth and families. During two sold-out performances on Sunday, Parker and Hurt will lead an ensemble during 90-minute concerts at the Crosstown Concourse – Green Room.
After staging No More Tears community concerts in a string of cities and incorporating local events into the performances, the Memphis concerts are part of what is somewhat of a homecoming. Hurt is a Melrose High School alum. She graduated with a degree in music from the University of Memphis, where she met Parker, who is from Little Rock.
“Almost our whole band is from Memphis,” said Parker. “(Robert) Bobby La Vell, our tenor player, is gonna write an actual new work for this concert, and it’s gonna be called, ‘My Spirit is Stronger Than Your Persecution.’ His father was Honeymoon Garner, who was a Memphis legend. … Our bassist is Rodney Jordan, who’s another Memphis legend. …
“Marc Franklin is our trumpet player. He lives in Memphis and is like a top-level horn guy. Another horn player is Chad Fowler, who spent time in Memphis, but is also now back in Little Rock. I spent 20 years in Memphis, but I live in Little Rock now. So, it’s a big homecoming thing.”
It’s also about expansion and the starting point is 2016. That’s when the Oxford American commissioned Parker and Hurt to write a sixty-minute composition of new music honoring the nine students who desegregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. By name they are Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrance Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls.
The musical product was dubbed “No Tears Suite.” It premiered in 2017 during events commemorating the 60th anniversary of Little Rock Central High School’s desegregation.
When we approached this project, we all agreed that it would be what we consider a growing project,” said Hurt, noting that the majority of the Little Rock Nine are “still living, functioning people. After we do the project in Memphis, we’re going back and we’re adding and updating and … because this this is actually what we consider a living project.”
The name No Tears Project derived from Dr. Melba Patillo Beals’ 2007 “Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High.”
“It’s weird how it’s come full circle to where I’ve been able to meet Dr. Beals and Ms. Eckford,” said Hurt, “and … hear them speak and hear them actually saying that they’ve become more involved in telling what really happened … from their own points of view and them getting more into speaking about it. …
“That’s a really important thing because, as Dr. Beals said, no one spoke about it, not even them. … That’s how much weight that they’ve had to carry for a lifetime. And so, to actually be able to speak with them, have tea with them … or ZOOM with them is incredible. I’m glad that we’re able to celebrate them.”
The No More Tears community concerts have tended to morph based upon where they have been performed, reflecting aspects of the host city’s civil rights history. Such as was the case when it unfolded in Tulsa’a Greenwood District, where “Black Wall Street” was destroyed during a racist onslaught.
In St. Louis, an aspect of the historical backdrop was the 1857 Dred Scott Decision. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that an enslaved African American man and his family could not claim freedom because they had lived in a state/territory where slavery was illegal. The court ruled that the Missouri Compromise, which made slavery illegal in the state/territory involved, was unconstitutional because it “deprives citizens of their [slave] property without due process of law.”
The 90-minute concerts are not all music. For instance, the Memphis performances will include what Parker said is an extended piece of poetry by Treasure Shields Redmond, who is from Meridian, Mississippi and has a Memphis history. Her father is the poet laureate of East St. Louis. Her poem, which incorporates the Dred Scott history, is entitled, “Who is Sam Blow?”
Talking about the Dred Scott case, the Little Rock Nine desegregation and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are subjects that must be dealt with no matter the difficulty in doing so, said Parker. While he sees a thread – the devaluing of human life – in each of those instances, Parker said there is also the aspect of “celebrating heroes” that is crucial to the discussions.
“So, part of our thing is sort of like recognition and reconciliation through recognition. And also, let’s air out our baggage. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable. A lot of uncomfortable things happen, but if you just get it out in the open and just air it out, I think that’s sort of the first step. If we can’t air it out, then how are we supposed to talk about it?
Music, along with artistic expressions such poetry and dance – all of which are built into the No Tears Project community concerts – are tools for promoting recognition and reconciliation.
“Sometimes you can’t talk to people, but if you can get some good music and people can relax, they’re way more accepting of a lot … they don’t get so defensive now.…”
Hurt said she and Parker view themselves as “artistic activists … We’re really excited to be coming back home just to continue what we’ve been doing.”
That, she said, involves putting on “concerts and events with shared art experiences. … everyone can tell their stories in their artistic way. We’ve always enjoyed doing that and, and sharing our stories. And now it just seems more important than ever for everybody to participate artistically in their shared history.”
No Tears Project in Memphis – details
The Memphis concerts will feature a new arrangement of Memphis pianist Donald Brown’s song “Poem for Martin,” written by Marc Franklin. There also will be the debut of new music by Oliver Lake, a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet. Lake, also a composer and poet, scored music to five poems that evoke the stories of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Amadou Diallo and George Floyd.
Dancer Ashley Tate will also join the ensemble as a special guest for both community concerts, which, again, are sold out.
Here’s the remainder of the schedule for No Tears Project in Memphis:
- June 13, 6:30 p.m., Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library – Recognition Before Reconciliation: A Civil Rights Panel Discussion, including Memphis 13 member and daughter of Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles Dwania Kyles; Little Rock Nine member Elizabeth Eckford; and activist Reena Evers-Everette, daughter of Medgar and Myrlie Evers. Dr. Russell Wigginton, president of the National Civil Rights Museum will moderate the discussion. Supt. Robin White of Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site will provide opening remarks and context. Reservations required.
- June 14, 10:30 a.m., Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library – In a 60-minute program for youth and families, Little Rock Nine member Elizabeth Eckford will share personal experiences and read from her book, “The Worst First Day: Bullied While Desegregating Central High.” Seating limited, first come first served.