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Anthony Davis Wins Pulitzer Prize For His Opera 'The Central Park Five'

Composer and pianist Anthony Davis, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Courtesy of the artist
Composer and pianist Anthony Davis, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Updated Tuesday at 1:25 p.m. ET

Anthony Davis' opera The Central Park Five, with a libretto by Richard Wesley, has won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

The Pulitzer jury cited The Central Park Five as "a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration, that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful." The full opera was premiered last June at California's Long Beach Opera; it was reworked from an earlier piece, Five, which premiered in Newark at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 2016.

The piece is a musical treatment of a still-raw, real-life subject: the 1989 convictions of five African-American and Latino teenagers of the rape and assault of a white woman, Trisha Meili, in Central Park that April.

The five teenagers' convictions were vacated in 2002, after a serial rapist, Matias Reyes, admitted to the horrific crime. DNA evidence substantiated his confession. The five men settled a lawsuit with the city in 2014.

In a telephone interview with NPR Monday evening, Davis explained his impetus for shaping the story into an operatic setting.

"What I think the artist is trying to get at is empathy," the composer said. "In watching it on stage — whether you're African-American, Caucasian, Asian, whatever — you become one of the five. You feel like you're the one being interrogated. You feel how you could have been coerced [into giving a false confession] And then the loss of innocence that the five experienced, that is a very universal emotion."

The case still has deep resonance nationally and in New York City: soon after the young men were arrested, Donald Trump took out full-page newspaper advertisements calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty. In 2019, now-President Trump declined to apologize for those actions, saying in part, "You do have people on both sides of that," and saying that the young men had "admitted their guilt." (The teenagers had made false confessions under coercion.)

In an in-depth interview about The Central Park Five for the University of California San Diego, where he teaches, Davis posits that the Central Park Five episode is when the political career of Trump — who is a character in the opera — truly began.

Davis is a musically wide-ranging composer of operas, symphonies, theater works (including the music for the stage version of Tony Kushner's Angels in America), chamber music and choral pieces — but he is also a highly acclaimed free jazz pianist and leader of the ensemble Episteme, which he founded in the early 1980s.

Davis frequently addresses issues of social justice and race in his work, and particularly in his operas, which include 1986's biographical X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and 1997's Amistad, which recounted the story of the revolt by Mende enslaved people aboard a ship off the coast of Cuba.

Davis is currently working on two more opera projects. One is The Darkest Light in the Heart, which explores the forgiveness that a family member offered Dylann Roof after he murdered nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. in 2015. The other is an opera he is developing with his cousin, playwright and journalist Thulani Davis, about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.

The subjects of The Central Park Five were also dramatized in another medium in 2019: they were the subject of an Ava DuVernay-directed miniseries for Netflix, which won 11 Emmy nominations and one award.

The other Pulitzer-nominated musical works in 2020 were composer Michael Torke's violin concerto Sky, and and all the days were purple, a song cycle by composer Alex Weiser that is sung in Yiddish and English.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.