Immediately after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, teacher and composer Evelyn LaRue Pittman converted her rage into a song, "Freedom, Freedom."
"I was as angry as my students, I was as frustrated as my students, and I had to come to grips with myself, says Pittman, her firm manner mirrored in her ramrod posture and the robust projection of her voice. "The only way I can handle anything like that is to write music."
But her creativity didn't subside with her anger. The songs multiplied, then a drama around the 13 activist years of King developed, and finally a musical, "Freedom Child," took shape. Pittman's story is one of creativity and dogged industriousness. During the last decade of low budgets and small audiences, she has taken her nonprofessional cast to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England, Scotland, Ghana, Italy and Liberia, and this week the Concert Hall stage of the Kennedy Center.
"On my wall is a picture made at the Tivoli Gardens. I asked everyone to sing "We Shall Overcome,' and they did, with tears in their eyes. That was the reaction in a country where people weren't emotional. . . So I am trying to keep the name of King alive," explains Pittman. Not only did she write the lyrics and compose and arrange the music but she also designed the props and did the limited fund raising. "One would ask has it been meaningful to write it? My answer is yes," says Pittman. Her reasons are the growth of interpersonal relations and understanding of history among the children in her classrooms and in the cast. "One girl said 'You know before I got into 'Freedom Child,' if a white kid said anything wrong to me, I would let her have it, but now I don't feel that way,'" says Pittman.
"Freedom for Every Mother's Child," the original title of the King musical, was first performed at the King family church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta on Easter Sunday 1971. The publicity material includes a blurb from Rev. King Sr., saying "I have seen many productions based on the life of our son Martin, but the one we have seen here today. . . is the most authentic." The lyrics cover social conditions, as well as the particulars of King's life from the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in 1955 through his murder in Memphis. The music includes all styles.
A tall, reedy woman dressed in a blue polyester pantsuit with a gold medallion of Africa around her neck, Pittman recalls her play's evolution, with humor and an indomitable spirit. Her conversation is etched with the cantankerousness and flat finality of one who is self-made and expects the same self-imposed perfection from others.
She grew up in Oklahoma and Michigan, taught school for 38 years, and lives an active retired life in Oklahoma City. Her age is privileged information, she says, laughing. In 1945 she wrote "Rich Heritage," a book of short stories and songs about 21 famous black Americans; it was followed in 1956 by a full-length opera, "Cousin Esther," which was produced in Paris when she studied there for a year and a half; in 1980 she wrote a musical on Jim Noble, a black messenger who became a folk hero at the time Oklahoma was made a state. "I find no difficulty in writing. I must say I am prolific, and if I have something to say, I say it," says Pittman.
Her professional training includes study with Kemper Harreld at Spellman College, a summer at Juilliard, a master's degree from the University of Oklahoma, and private classes with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. uBoulanger, she says, ". . . wouldn't try to make you into a carbon copy of some other composer. She would develop the talent that you had." Her musical life has been a companion to her teaching, writing and arranging gospel songs, appearing on the radio for 14 years in Oklahoma and organizing choirs.
The way Pittman carried her musical love child about King from campus to church to concert hall was through a network of friends. A friend and fellow teacher who was a classmate of King Jr.'s mother arranged the 1971 performance. She got the incentive for the first European tour in 1972 when she learned that a black man, Jerome Holland, was the U.S. ambassador to Sweden. Pittman thought it would be educational for her students to see him in action, and the interracial cast endosed the idea.
The Kennedy Center one-night date developed by word of mouth. A friend of Pittman's attended a convention last summer and heard Archie Buffkins, president of the Kennedy Center's National Committee on Cultural Diversity, describe a program that gives visibility to minority artists. The friend told Pittman, who corresponded with Buffkins, and sent him the score, reviews, taped excerpts and had 100 friends write letters of support.
"The first thing we liked was the material and its relationship to a historical figure," said Buffkins, "I didn't see the highly refined composition techniques, but it was a different treatment of a life in a musical setting and employed the talents of young people." The Kennedy Center provided a production grant of $4,000 and in-house services; Pittman raised the money for transportation and living accommodations.
This cast of 23 ranges in age from 8 to 80 and meets a particular goal of Pittman's: "Three PhDs, a pharmacist, a domestic worker, a bank messenger, from all walks of life. . . I am trying to attract the kind of people that followed King," says Pittman.
When Pittman isn't promoting "Freedom Child," she composes, outlines her next project (a work about the life of newspaper editor Roscoe Dungee) and gives lectures to students in Oklahoma in exchange for rehearsal space.
Though she has never tried it before, Pittman is thinking of applying for a major grant. "I am going to try to get something, because I want to go to China next," she says. "I think King is a man of this century. He would be well-received as he has been elsewhere. . . So even though he is dead, I think he is a bigger man now. He is needed in this critical hour. . ."