Capri Glee! member Rosanna Hudgins performs during the community choir’s spring concert in North Minneapolis, April 25. Paul Irmiter/Courtesy of The Capri
May 9, 2023
A sea of colorful tops and billowing pants pop across the stage – turquoise, fuchsia, and canary yellow – as a community choir gets into position at The Capri in North Minneapolis. It’s the group’s spring concert and if the light bouncing off the singers’ clothes is any indication, tonight’s show is going to be a joyful experience.
“I’m so happy to see your smiling faces tonight!” says J.D. Steele, the director of Capri Glee!, stepping out in a tropical print shirt and white jeans. Soon he is off – bounding around the stage, light as a feather, throwing his arms into the air as he leads the choir, and the audience, in “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” a tribute to the late Harry Belafonte.
The concert is the culmination of six weeks of hard work for the just over 100 members. Some have singing experience, some don’t – no auditions are required to join. Most have signed up for the spring season for one reason: a pure love of singing.
The cross-generational, multiracial, and multireligious choir is in its eighth year, with Mr. Steele at the helm. As a member of The Steeles, a family of five siblings who has become a mainstay of Minnesota’s music scene, Mr. Steele brings a wealth of expertise. The Steeles have recorded and performed with Prince, actor Morgan Freeman, and producer Jimmy Jam, and have traveled the world with their soulful sound.
More importantly, Mr. Steele wants to show choir members that singing has the power to heal and build community – a need that has been especially evident post-pandemic as people look for ways to regroup.
Rehearsals and concerts are held here in North Minneapolis, an area of the city that has struggled to shed its decadeslong image as crime-laden and impoverished. Mr. Steele hopes that the Capri Glee! choir can help people in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, share and learn from one another, and – most of all – uplift.
“I wanted a multicultural choir, where we could teach inspiration, love, and joy,” says Mr. Steele after the show. “When we keep singing, we keep growing. ... I want people to see that music makes community.”
The Capri Glee! adult community choir began in February 2015, on the initiative of The Capri’s then-director, Karl Reichert. The Steele family, who had performed for the company’s galas, was known in the community, and eldest brother J.D. was a natural choice to lead the choir. Mr. Steele was already heading up two local choirs, one for adults and one for young people.
Paul Irmiter/Courtesy of The CapriThe Capri Glee! community choir’s more than 100 members practiced for six weeks ahead of their spring concert on April 25 at The Capri in North Minneapolis.
“What Karl was trying to create was to bring different people from different backgrounds together, and J.D. is a master of that,” says James Scott, current director of The Capri, which is part of the Plymouth Christian Youth Center (PCYC) – a nonprofit focused on uplifting youth and adults. “What anyone outside of North Minneapolis sees is violence, drugs, gangs. But what we see here is a group of people who are just trying to live our lives. The Glee choir is that intersection between art and community.”
The Capri, originally built as a movie theater in 1927 called the Paradise, was once a cultural hub for people in the neighborhood, which had a large Jewish and African American population. For decades, the community lived in relative harmony.
Then, on the night of July 19, 1967, racial tensions boiled over. Violence erupted on Plymouth Avenue, and local businesses –
many of which were owned by Jewish people – were set alight.
In the decades that followed, the neighborhood became more diverse, but it also grew to be known for its rising crime. Today, the neighborhoods surrounding The Capri have the highest level of gun violence in the city and one of the worst educational achievement gaps in the nation.
Several nonprofits in the neighborhood, in addition to the PCYC, are dedicated to reversing that trend. The Northside Achievement Zone aims to reduce educational and social disparities, and a local real estate developer has invested heavily in bringing business to North Minneapolis.
“Some people only see the unrest, the crime. But there are bad people wherever you go,” says Norma Hingeley, an audience member and 50-year resident of the neighborhood. “We’ve seen so much change in this neighborhood, so much growth. It’s very diverse. Why would I want to live anywhere else?”
Community choirs – with their inherent ability to bridge generational, educational, and social gaps through a shared experience – can be part of that positive change. As the pandemic dies down, more people are looking to connect with one another.
“You transcend your own boundaries when you arrive at this collective moment,” says Anna Vagle, the director of the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Community volunteer choir in Minneapolis, which has welcomed the Steele family to sing. “Music puts something in our hearts and minds that speaking can’t.”
For Capri Glee!, that has included breaking barriers within its own membership. Veterans say some newcomers were hesitant at first about joining the choir because it meant rehearsing in North Minneapolis.
Paul Irmiter/Courtesy of The CapriChoir member and neighborhood resident Kevin Jenkins says Capri Glee! helps people find what they have in common.
“Some told me at the beginning, ‘I had a bad experience one time.’ But I told them, ‘That was 30 years ago,’ or ‘That could have happened anywhere,’” says Kevin Jenkins, a choir member and longtime resident of the neighborhood. “This choir has allowed us to think about what we have in common, not what we don’t. It’s about building those relationships and enjoying this time we have on Earth.”
After every rehearsal, the group goes out for dinner. Conversations strike up, as do unlikely friendships. “When I first moved here from out of state, I didn’t have a lot of friends,” says Mary Schrank, a Capri Glee! member since 2017. “This group became my friends – music enthusiasts, like myself, singing and spreading joy.”
Ms. Schrank says Mr. Steele personifies this infectious energy, often telling the choir, “If you sing from the heart, it touches the heart.”
He starts out every season – fall and spring – with what he refers to as “the hymnals”: R&B classics from the 1960s and 1970s that almost everyone knows, like Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and anything by Michael Jackson. He learned to find songs that unite, not divide, while teaching music in East Africa in majority Muslim communities.
“I had to find songs that everyone could relate to,” says Mr. Steele. “Now, I choose inspirational songs. I’m not trying to use [the choir] as a ministry.”
That doesn’t stop him from infusing his teaching with a gospel-like spirit. He can sing soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, and encourages people to sing in different sections. He also tells singers to memorize their songs instead of staring at a piece of paper, and to sing with their hands. “I’m a pro-movement person. Standing still is not an option – unless you want people to notice you,” he says. “You need to connect your heart with your head to become a more expressive singer. More of your soul comes out.”
That is certainly evident at this concert, where the choir is joined onstage by Mr. Steele’s two other choirs, the Mill City Singers and MacPhail Community Youth Choir. Here, they move as one – swaying, shaking, bopping, and grooving in imperfect unison. And then, Mr. Steele’s sister Jearlyn jumps up unexpectedly from the audience to sing a raucous rendition of Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold On Me.”Bottom of Form
At the end of the song, she takes her seat in the audience. People have pulled out tissues to wipe their eyes. Mr. Steele stands before the crowd and leads everyone in a chant before the choirs launch into their grand finale, “Try Real Love,” composed by Grammy Award-winner Edwin Hawkins and arranged by Mr. Steele.
The choir takes a final bow. Mr. Steele’s arms are up, waving again. “Thank you and God bless you,” he says, as the crowd rises in near-deafening applause. “Go out and change the world!”