‘Powerful Voices’ envelop Lee Hall

Backed by the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra and FAMU Concert Choir, Marques Jerrell Ruff (as Rev. C.K. Steele) belts out a note during “Walk in Dignity.”
Photo courtesy: Adieren Narro Photography

In commemoration of the 1956 Tallahassee bus boycott, the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra and Florida A&M University Concert Choir collaborated this past weekend to deliver “Powerful Voices: Lift Every Voice,” a two-night concert event which opened at Florida State University’s Ruby Diamond Concert Hall on Saturday evening followed by a performance at Florida A&M’s Lee Hall Auditorium on Sunday afternoon.

Led by renowned conductors Darko Butorac and Mark Butler, director of Choral Studies & Activities at FAMU, the weekend’s first performance at Ruby Diamond leaned more toward the traditional soundscapes of classical music, whereas Sunday’s FAMU matinee featured a flavorful blend of orchestral tunes and triumphant gospel hymns that brought hundreds within the walls of Lee Hall to their feet in unison, harmoniously lifting their voices and singing the likes of “We Shall Overcome” and “Amazing Grace.”

During the weekend’s performances, the TSO and FAMU Concert Choir premiered a musical work titled “Walk in Dignity,” written by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson. This piece placed the spotlight on Concert Choir singers Siana Hayden and Jordan Booth as they navigated the bus boycott through the voices of Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson, the FAMU students who sat beside a white woman at the front of a city bus on May 26, 1956, sparking the fire of a civil rights movement that would change Tallahassee forever. The pair was joined on stage by Marques Jerrell Ruff as the booming bass-baritone voice of Reverend C.K. Steele, the pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church who led the year-long boycott through thick and thin.

Florida A&M University president Larry Robinson praised the performance, acknowledging the bravery of the students who made it possible over six decades ago.

“These heroes that you heard about here today, you have to remember that they were just students. Imagine them taking on the world as it was back in 1956.”

Robinson’s praises continued to the present-day student body, whose persistent efforts towards social equity and cultural connection he spoke pridefully of.

“I’ve always said that we have the most socially conscious students in America here at FAMU,” Robinson said. “There’s a wonderful culture of music, art and entertainment here on our campus that we need to bring the world into, so that we can work together and enrich the lives of our students.”

Several descendants of Jakes and Steele – as well as Jacqueline Perkins, the daughter of Robert and Trudie Perkins, the owners of the city’s only Black-owned gas station which supplied gas for carpools during the bus boycott — were recognized as special guests at Lee Hall on Sunday, all gathered in the same auditorium where their ancestors met in May 1956 to enact the boycott that would open the door for racial equality in Tallahassee.

Hayden, a fourth-year vocal performance music major at FAMU, was humbled by performing for the families of the women whom she represented on stage, describing the experience as “something that was truly meant to happen.”

“I feel a connection not just with them, but my own ancestors,” Hayden said. “It connects me back to my personal history as a Black woman, and recognizing what my people have gone through feels very special, very divine.”

Ruff described the experience of performing in the historic hall — which he described as “beautiful and acoustically resplendent” — as the feeling of “coming home,” thankful that the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra has made their presence known south of the railroad tracks.

“Even though this is Black history, this is American history, so everyone should be in here,” Ruff said. “Representation matters to those of us on the stage. When we look out and I can see different hair textures, races and people from all walks of life, I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

For those who missed “Powerful Voices,” do not fret, the music will go on. Amanda Stringer, CEO of the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, kicked off the event by announcing several upcoming events, including a collaboration with Tallahassee’s resident funk icon George Clinton. As for FAMU, Lee Hall will be hosting “Late Night Show” featuring the FAMU Jazz Ensemble on April 6.

For more information on the Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, visit their website.