Arts Series Performance Gives a Voice to Human Rights

By Lauren Glass '14

Forty guards were being held hostage in a two-times-too-crowded prison after a violent prisoner uprising in upstate New York. Angered over the death of a black inmate in another prison and the terrible living conditions they faced, a group of prisoners seized the guards and took control of the prison for four days. As the inmates involved were attempting to negotiate their freedom, the governor gave his orders.

Tear gas poured down on the prison, smothering everyone inside as the National Guard fired indiscriminately through the cloud for two and a half minutes.

Twenty-nine inmates and nine guards were shot dead.

This was the scene painted by UD associate professor  and director of human rights research Dr. Mark Ensalaco at the Speaking Up in Concert: 20th Century Composers Take on Human Rights concert held two weeks ago. The prison uprising and government retaliation described above is what inspired American composer Frederic Rzewski to write his pieces Coming Together and Attica. These pieces, written in memory of the Attica prison uprising in New York of 1971, challenge society’s notions of prisoners’ rights.

As the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra played this stirring piece, what stuck in my mind was the commentary with which Dr. Ensalaco introduced it. He reminded the crowd that it may be easy for us as a society to brush off prisoners’ rights; but we are forgetting the humanity that lies with this population on the fringes, and that these are individuals that are as real as you or me.

And Dr. Ensalaco knows this first hand, because one of those inmates caught up in the chaos of Attica on September 13, 1971, was his uncle Jim.

“When you think about these big political events, there’s always a personal element hidden in them,” Dr. Ensalaco remarked, “there’s always an uncle Jim.”

This became all I could think about as the orchestra played and the singer chanted the phrase, “Attica is in front of me.” The men in the prison whose futures would never escape the imprint Attica left on their lives were sons, fathers, and brothers.

Coupled with the introduction, the pieces which were performed drew an appreciable emotional response from me. The music conveyed a sense of haste, a sense of purpose, a sense of doom, and a sense of hope constantly intertwined yet fluctuating at different parts of the performance so that I could just imagine the tension between the panic and the passion the prisoners must have felt. The call to prisoners' rights suddenly became much more powerful to me.

I found that the orchestrators of this Arts Series event did an excellent job of combining oral commentary with music in order to demonstrate how effectively art can be used to call attention to the need for social change, and I have definitely gained a new appreciation for the composer Frederic Rzewski.

After this, I’m really looking forward to attending more of the upcoming Rites. Rights. Writes. events. If you are too, you can check out the the Rites. Rights. Writes. home page for this semester’s event schedule:

Lauren Glass is a senior at the University of Dayton, where she is studying journalism. Currently working as a social media assistant for ArtStreet, she enjoys music, writing, and photography.

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