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

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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.

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 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.

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The case still has deep resonance nationally and in New York City: soon after the young men were arrested, Donald Trump, Jr., took out full-page newspaper advertisements calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty. In 2019, he 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.

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.

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