McAfee Alum’s Musical Takes Fresh Look at Atlanta’s Most Famous Native Son
It might seem like an unusual career trajectory — an established London barrister born of Jamaican parents becomes the creator of a hit musical about an episode in American history, all via a degree from Mercer’s McAfee School of Theology. But that’s the story of Douglas Tappin (M.Div. 2008).
He is creator of the musical I Dream — a rock-opera tale inspired by the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The show recently completed a run of successful performances at one of Atlanta’s premier venues, the Alliance Theatre.
Cut back to London. There, in 2003, Tappin said, “I had a sense of calling.” After years as a practicing attorney who also had an active faith and a love of and knack for musical theater — he had already written a musical about Moses’ liberation of the ancient Israelites — Tappin began to feel a tug to another career path. He knew it involved faith and the arts.
“Even though I knew I wanted to write, I wasn’t certain that going to college to pursue a theater degree was the right step; it seemed to have something to do with ministry,” he said. “And so as I began to search around for places to study.”
He landed at McAfee.
Tappin quickly got to flex his artistic muscles. He wrote an Easter musical performed in McAfee’s chapel services in 2005 and again in 2006. He wrote another musical piece — this one focused on the story of King David — that he called King.
That led him to the subject of his next musical.
Although Tappin had previously only written about biblical figures, he began to ponder the idea of a musical about the minister who led a civil-rights revolution.
“It wasn’t until I came here that I sort of realized that much of [the Civil Rights Movement] had happened in the South and particularly Atlanta, and how dear to Atlanta the memory of Martin Luther King was,” Tappin said.
An invitation from McAfee Dean Alan Culpeper for Tappin to produce two of the pieces from I Dream at a school convocation in 2006 led to a collaboration with Atlanta’s Peachtree Baptist Church to perform several more pieces from the musical in early 2007.
He fleshed it out into a full-blown production and got his chance to put it on. It included a cast of more than 30 performers, 70 compositions and a 15-piece orchestra.
Reviews were largely positive, but many did take note of the show’s massive scale in both performance and its coverage of King’s entire life and an entire era of American history (Atlanta’s Creative Loafing called it “hugely ambitious”).
But ticket sales were good — with the latter performances selling out. Many who lived through the Civil Rights Movement gave it rave reviews.
“I think it was a good musical reflection of my father,” said Bernice King, in a video posted on the show’s Facebook page. “It’s very hard, you know, to put this movement on a stage.”
Tappin said he is in discussions about taking the show on tour to other Southern cities that were important to the Civil Rights Movement as well as to South Africa. There has also been talk of a bigger stage in New York or London.
His time at McAfee was instrumental in helping him clarify his call, Tappin said. “By the end of the four years ... I was very certain that I was called to be a writer and do my best to write stories like this ... about the intersection of faith — or just what faith lived meant to different people.”
By contributing writer Rob Marus
Photo courtesy of the Alliance Theatre