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Originally published Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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King's daughter pays tribute in "Montage for Martin"

Yolanda King always has a full schedule, but in January the schedule "just overflows. " The oldest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she is called upon constantly for appearances...

Seattle Times music critic

Yolanda King always has a full schedule, but in January the schedule "just overflows."

The oldest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she is called upon constantly for appearances, talks and performances celebrating the legacy of her father during the month of the national holiday in his honor (Jan. 17 this year). She will appear in Seattle as the narrator for two performances of the Stephen Newby/Ja Jahannes musical work "Montage for Martin, A Musical Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."

"It's a tremendous opportunity to communicate," explained the 49-year-old King of the oratorio in a recent phone interview.

"This is one of my favorite things to do, working with a symphonic accompaniment, because I don't sing — and this is as close as I will come to singing."

Carrying on her father's civil-rights legacy has been the center of King's life.

"I feel that I'm very much in touch with my father's spirit and presence. I feel it, sense it and take much energy and inspiration from that. I know he is very proud of what I have managed to do," she explains. "My father was not really pleased when I told him of my choice to train as an actress, when he was with us in this dimension. But I have used that training in a way that pleases him.

"I'm not walking in his footsteps. They're too big! I would fall. But I am doing my own work to continue the dream that he gave to us all."

Coming up

"Montage for Martin, A Musical Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," with Yolanda King, 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $25-$35 (206-292-ARTS or www.seattlesymphony.org/benaroya).

Her most recent appearances have been at diversity conferences, women's empowerment sessions, corporate presentations and college forums (including a two-month residency last year at Cornell University). One of her presentations, called "Open My Eyes, Open My Soul," is a series of short stories and poems focusing on diversity of all kinds (race, religion, culture), "reaching across chasms," as she puts it. More details can be found on her Web site, www.yolanda-king.com.

"If a presentation is done theatrically, I call it 'edutainment,' a mix of education and entertainment. The audience gets a mini-production with sound and lights and theater. ... Audiences appreciate a performance far more than they would a lecture."

In Seattle, the work in which she will perform is a full-length oratorio in many different musical styles, composed by Northwest composer Stephen Michael Newby to texts written by playwright Ja Jahannes. Performed here in 2002, this moving work will feature a 150-voice choir and full orchestra, with performers spanning generations and cultures. Newby directs the Seattle Pacific University gospel choir, whose student members will perform alongside seasoned veteran performers. Among the latter: Patrinell Wright, director of the renowned Total Experience Gospel Choir.

Other soloists include James Caddell, Brenda Wimberly, Gregory Broughton, Linda Mattos, Sylvia Twine and Catherine Haight. Newby will conduct the score to which he has made some additional orchestrations and revisions since the previous Seattle performance.

"We always wanted a member of the King family to be involved in this production," Newby explains. "There was a performance of excerpts from the oratorio with the Hartford Symphony and one of the cousins of Dr. King. We're just thrilled and excited to perform this entire work in Seattle with Dr. King's daughter, with her background in drama and her symbolizing the King legacy. I think she will add a whole new life to this music.

"It is the dream of Americans to live in unity and peace. I am hoping and praying these performances will take the dream to a new level, and that they will set the tone for us to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in a new way."

For Newby, celebrating King Day involves active thought and participation — looking in the mirror and doing some self-evaluation about whether we are making the world a better place.

That echoes Yolanda King's thoughts on the holiday.

"I tease sometimes and say that the King holiday is a 20th-century miracle," she says. "Reagan even signed it, and he was completely opposed to the idea. But it just took on a life of its own. The holiday sets the tone in January for how we should behave and respond the rest of the year.

"It's not just a day to take off and relax, but to focus actively on those principles my father stood for."

How far have we come, in Yolanda King's perception, to realizing the dream her father articulated for the world?

"We have certainly made tremendous progress," she reflects, "and that is really important for people to recognize. As a child in the South, I compare the reality then with the reality today, and there are huge and profound differences. It provides inspiration to see from whence we have come."

But she says we still have a distance to go.

"There are far too many of the values of the dream we have still not achieved, creating a planet where we can live together in peace and love. But if we look at this country we know there's hope, there's possibility, in taking those steps forward. This allows me to be optimistic," she says.

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

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