Black Chorus at Illinois
Photography by Ronald Stemley
By Rebekka Price
On Monday, December 21, 2020, WILL-TV aired a special episode of American Portrait Central Illinois. Titled “Lift Every Voice,” this episode featured our very own Professor Ollie Watts Davis and the University of Illinois Black Chorus. This project grew out of the national PBS American Portrait series, which aims to showcase the lives of everyday people and what it means to be an American in today’s world.
“Lift Every Voice” tells the moving story of music-making for choral musicians amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and shows how Davis and the Black Chorus continued to inspire their community with creativity and spirit through weekly video diaries. The group documented the technical, emotional, and logistical challenges they faced: from rehearsing with specialty singer’s masks while navigating 10-feet spacing between singers to singing in the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts parking garage as a safe outdoor rehearsal space. The episode also follows the Windy City Gay Chorus and the Windy City Treble Quire, both led by William Southerland, and Jeff Thomas’s Danville High School Madrigals. It illustrates how each choral director found their own creative approach to guide their singers through unprecedented times.
While circumstances were often far from ideal, Davis recognized the importance of providing her students with an in-person choral experience and keeping the community that she has built in the University of Illinois Black Chorus at the forefront of her work. Most notably, “Lift Every Voice” shares an uplifting message of hope and perseverance through Professor Davis’s unwavering optimism for a brighter future. “The witness of Black Chorus is essential to the Illinois Experience,” shares Davis as she reflects on the experiences from this past year. “I am grateful to have been given sufficient grace to provide my students on-line and in-person with a navigation system during this time of uncertainty. Students were strengthened by coming together, grounded in one another’s presence, and empowered to carry the joy forward.”
Its timely release during the 2020 holiday season undoubtedly inspired its viewers to share this optimism and to believe in the powerful impact of the arts on the human experience.