Bullying of LGBT youth has made national headlines in recent years and Insignia, the chamber ensemble of the Miami Gay Men’s Chorus, is using music to promote understanding and acceptance.
On Sept. 22 at Coral Gables Congregational Church, the 16-member group will perform Oliver Button is a Sissy, a musical adaptation of Tomie dePaola’s groundbreaking 1979 children’s book. Featuring music by Alan Shorter, the work tells the story of Oliver, an unconventional boy who likes to do unconventional things.
“Oliver Button is a heartwarming tale that tells you it’s okay to follow your own path, no matter what others may say,” explained Anthony Cabrera, artistic director of the chorus.
Oliver is the little boy who likes to play dress up, sing songs and dance. When his parents try to convince him to take up more “appropriate” pastimes for a boy, he signs up for tap dancing lessons. Kids being kids, his classmates taunt him and even spray paint graffiti on the wall, labeling him a “sissy.”
Determined, Oliver enters the school talent show and dances his heart out, only to be bested by a four-year-old baton twirler. But, his classmates were there and finally come to recognize his special talent.
Many of the Insignia singers relate personally to the story, including Jeremy Mason, a three-year veteran of the group.
“I feel like Oliver Button,” said Mason, who portrays Oliver. “I was the kid who liked to sing and dance, and I was ostracized, just like Oliver was. It wasn’t until later that these talents were recognized as a strength.”
Mason, 30, grew up in a conservative neighborhood in Orlando, and now teaches in charter schools in Miami.
“There are so many ways for students to learn a lesson and telling a powerful story is just one of those ways. I hope students and families can connect with this story,” he said.
While the chorus has tackled thematic concerts for adult audiences—addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic, crystal meth addiction and marriage equality and inheritance rights—a program aimed at children and families presents unique challenges.
“Some of (Shorter’s score) is complex and challenges us musically, but it also has a beautiful simplicity that enhances the story,” said Cabrera, who is also a teacher. “The biggest challenge is to deliver it to children between the ages of 5 and 11 who have very short attention spans.”
The chorus will get some help from the Rev. Dr. Laurinda Hafner, senior pastor at the church, who will serve as the narrator of the colorful musical story. Hafner has been an outspoken supporter of the LGBT community and a driving force behind the concert.
Following the performance, the audience will be invited to participate in craft projects and a discussion, “a way for parents to talk to their kids about bullying and how to best address the issue,” said Cabrera, who is raising a 5-year-old daughter with his partner.
This program is just the beginning of the organization’s five-year commitment to reach out to young audiences. Already, plans are underway to follow up the performance of Oliver Button each year with other works, including new commissions of other children’s books set to music.
The chorus is grateful for the enthusiastic support of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and Starbucks, and is partnering with Safe Schools South Florida on the initiative.
“We asked ourselves how this program could make a better world for my kid, other LGBT parents and, most importantly, the LGBT kids who are out there in our community,” Cabrera said.
“We are dedicated to making a difference directly through music,” he concluded.
If You Go
Oliver Button is a Sissy
by Tomie dePaola and Alan Shorter
performed by Insignia, chamber ensemble of the Miami Gay Men’s Chorus
Sunday, Sept. 22, 4 p.m.
Coral Gables Congregational Church, 3010 DeSoto Blvd., Coral Gables
$20 adults, children 12 and under free
For tickets, go to MiamiGayChorus.org