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El compositor Anthony Davis. Photo: Eduardo Contreras
The composer Anthony Davis. Photo: Eduardo Contreras

An opera about the famous case of "The Central Park Five" wins the Pulitzer for Music

It was one of the most notorious cases of racial injustice in the 1980s. Now, composer Anthony Davis has bestowed the five with one of the most prestigious…

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In ancient Egypt, power was conferred to saying a pharaoh's name that is was tantamount to reviving him. Vice versa, that's why erasing a name was equivalent to sentencing one to oblivion. 

In our modern culture the same thing happens, the more times something is remembered, the more present it remains. In some cases, it helps us, if we are smart, not to make the same mistakes, especially when what happened makes us very ashamed

This year's Pulitzer Prizes honored the magical power of the word to point out racial injustices, violence and holes in the system by rewarding works that serve as huge social functions.

In that category is also the sung and played word also with its own magical power. As evidenced by composer Anthony Davis winning this year's Pulitzer Prize in Music for The Central Park Five, an opera based on one of the most notorious cases of racial injustice of the late 1980s, and whose victims were only compensated a few years ago.

By now you've probably heard about the case. It's hard to walk around Central Park and not have the shade of the trees doesn't remind us of it. 

The Central Park runner

It happened on the night of April 19, 1989, when a 28-year-old girl, Trisha Meili, was assaulted and raped while running through Central Park; eight other people were also attacked. 

At the time, it was said to have been the actions of about 30 teenagers, of whom, 10 suspects were arrested, including four African Americans and a couple Hispanic boys accused of robbery, rape and attempted murder. Although they confessed during questioning - without a lawyer - they would later plead not guilty.

Even though the DNA of neither of them was found at the crime scene, they were sentenced in 1990 to between five and 15 years in prison. 

"We can make it our own, make it serve our purposes and serve the purpose of telling our stories," Anthony Davis 

A decade later, a murderer and serial rapist sentenced to life in prison, Matias Reyes, confessed to raping the runner and forensic tests confirmed it. However, he could not be prosecuted.

The convictions of the five men were overturned in 2002, but it was not until 14 years later that they received any compensation, when New York State was forced to pay them $3.9 million for racial discrimination and malicious prosecution.

The Minstrel of Injustice

Anthony Davis was living in New York when the case took place. It was 30 years before he started working on The Central Park Five when he got his hands on Richard Westley's script. 

But, Davis thought, how do you get something as traditionally aristocratic as opera to be not only of interest to the public, but to have a strong social impact?

"Opera is sometimes unpleasant for our community," Davis told The Times in 2019. "We can make it our own, make it serve our purposes and serve the purpose of telling our stories.

Including President Trump, singing about the death penalty and getting inspiration from hip hop groups like Public Enemy were some of the things that made the opera a real exercise in political art. 

Now the composer, whose obsession has always been to tell the story of minorities and the injustices they experience - his first opera was X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X , which premiered in 1986 - plans  for two more works, including one on the aftermath of the 2015 mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by a white supremacist.

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