Consider This: ‘The Slave Letters’ will move you

Michal Dawson Connor

Run, don’t walk your hands over to your computer’s keyboard and book tickets now, before they sell out, for my dear friend Michal Dawson Connor’s inspiring show, “The Slave Letters.” The show’s origin story began when Connor worked in Berlin during the mid ‘90s. After performing in a production of “Porgy and Bess,” Connor was asked to sing “Songs of the Hebrides” in his glorious baritone at a Hamburg radio station. A Russian harpist on the project, who did not speak German or English, and Connor, who didn’t speak Russian, spoke to each other in Italian — a common language for musicians.

The Russian harpist encouraged Connor to create his own projects, while almost simultaneously, a German radio listener heard him singing and had a brainstorm: “Connor needs to sing the songs of his heritage.” This German listener went so far as to research collections at the Smithsonian and was able to locate letters written by enslaved people and former slaves. As a result, both a book and a performance piece based on those letters were born. These events underscore why listening to those who appreciate your talent and want to help take it to the next level is important. To quiet the inner voice that says, “I don’t want to play into people’s fixed ideas about what I can or can’t do.”

There’s a trap that African American singers can get ensnared in: musical type-casting. Michal Dawson Connor is a legit singer, as comfortable with German lieder as he is with operatic arias. While he doesn’t want to be “pigeonholed” into only doing spirituals, a common request for singers like him, he also doesn’t want to ignore them. Instead, he has transformed these iconic melodies by reframing them almost as art songs, giving them their full artistic due in performance via his sumptuous and unique arrangements. As a result, it is like hearing them for the first time.

These songs transport the listener back in time; they contain echoes of not just plantations but also of Africa. He credits his grandmother and great-grandmother with planting a love for his family’s culture at a young age. Connor’s great-great-grandmother was enslaved, and her daughter, his great-grandmother, influenced his life, as did his grandmother. They delighted in Connor’s magnificent voice and were highly entertained by hearing their classically trained progeny sing in German … and they let him know it. “I don’t know if you’re cussin’ me out or what when you sing those funny words!” “Whatever you is singing, keep doin’ it… but I sure wish I could understand what you’re sayin’.” “Why, Mister Mike! You are so distinglished.”

While Connor avoided the “negro” spiritual traps, his grandmothers both instilled a love of them, so he couldn’t avoid the lure of doing an entire project of so-called “Black” music.

While “The Slave Letters” was born in Germany, a few (and not enough!) places in the United States have had access to it. The first place was the Reizenstein Middle School in Pittsburgh, which Billy Porter attended. Who knows, maybe Porter saw this show! During that performance, in an excerpt from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” where Simon Legree beats Uncle Tom, the incensed students attacked the actor playing the wicked Legree. The students were not having it! Connor calmed everyone down, continued the performance, then led an intense Q&A after the show about the brutality and terror of slavery.

How many white people realize that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” turned the tide of Northern sentiment about slavery? Before the book, many northerners were mainly apathetic about the “peculiar institution,” but after its publication, northerners were appalled and saw Black people not as chattel but as people. That might be “duh” now, but then? When I weighed whether I should write my book “Beauty Bites Beast” from an academic point of view or use a pop culture tone, Stowe’s example swayed me. Like her, I wanted to influence culture in the broadest way possible.

I saw snippets of “The Slave Letters” at All Saints Episcopal last February and was profoundly moved by the beauty and depth of the piece. The packed audience there felt the same way. This year, we have two opportunities to see an enhanced version of the show. Whatever driving is required will be well worth it! It features the world-famous Roger Wagner Chorale, conducted by Jeannine Wagner, along with woodwind and string accompaniment, other soloists and a dancer, and, of course, the incomparable star Michal Dawson Conner. And yes, bring the kids!

Considering the current horrific right-wing attempts to erase the existence of this period of American history, this show is something that I believe everyone needs to see and hear. It’s all of our history, not merely Black History. And what a grand way to commemorate Black History Month, on either Saturday, February 25 or Sunday, February 26. To get precise times, addresses, and tickets, go to You’ll see a blue button that reads “Our Next Concert.” My husband and I will be at both performances; we hope to see you there.

2023 marks the 30th year that Ellen Snortland has written this column. She also teaches creative writing online and can be reached at Her award-winning film “Beauty Bites Beast” is available for download or streaming at