The Central Park Five, an opera that featured Derrell Acon ’10 in a leading role when it debuted last summer in southern California, has won a Pulitzer Prize for music.
The Pulitzer announcement came Monday, with the Pulitzer jury calling Anthony Davis’ jazz-infused opera a “courageous operatic work.”
The production was presented by Long Beach Opera, with Lawrence University alumnus Acon playing one of five black or Latino men wrongly convicted in the 1989 rape and beating of a white woman in New York’s Central Park. The real-life case drew national attention then and again 13 years later when DNA evidence exonerated the men, bringing renewed cries of injustice and a lawsuit that would eventually cost New York City $41 million.
The Pulitzer for Davis is a crowning honor for a production that Acon says was both fulfilling and emotional.
“Portraying the character of Antron McCray was the most moving experience of my operatic career,” Acon said Tuesday. “My colleagues and I all felt a sense of honor and duty to share this deeply tragic story, which is unfortunately all too familiar for many black folks in American society.”
Acon talked about the emotions of The Central Park Five just after the production debuted in Long Beach last June.
“I wasn’t really anticipating any particular response,” he said after getting an enthusiastic welcome on opening night. “I was more aware of my own responses, understanding that it would be a very emotional process for me. As a young black man in America, you know, a lot of these topics are very close to my own experience, and these struggles are very mirrored in my own life.
“I think a lot about the rehearsal process, tending to all of these emotions, letting them out, having a lot of beautiful discussions with my colleagues, especially the five of us in the lead roles.”
Acon graduated summa cum laude from Lawrence in 2010 as a double major in voice performance and government. He went on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in 19th-century opera history and performance from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.
Acon, who serves on the Lawrence Board of Trustees as a Recent Graduate Trustee — a position established for alumni within two to 10 years of their graduation — earned multiple regional and national honors as a student and already has more than two dozen operatic roles on his resume.
In 2018, he relocated to southern California and began working with Long Beach Opera, landing the role in The Central Park Five. He also facilitated public conversations about the Central Park Five case and other issues of injustice and now serves as the opera house’s director of engagement and equity.
Last summer’s opera was led by Davis, who had attempted to stage an earlier version in New Jersey with little success. This time, the reworked production drew national attention.
In announcing the Pulitzer, the jury said Davis’ opera, with libretto by Richard Wesley, is “marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration that skillfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful.”
Acon is the second Lawrentian involved in a Pulitzer-winning opera in the last decade. Eric Simonson ’82 directed the original production of Silent Night, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music.