Soon after I graduated from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, I spent a year living in Americus, a small town in southern Georgia. I sometimes felt the subtle jabs of racism from people around me—the raising of an eyebrow, the clutching of a purse, the sudden grabbing of a child’s hand.
One hot autumn day, as I took a leisurely walk through the town, I heard the muffled melody of Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, coming from a nearby house.
I had first heard Dance of the Knights several years earlier in Professor John Kratus’s Music Appreciation class at Case. Before then, I had not been an avid listener of classical music. However, I was mesmerized when I first heard this piece. As I sat in the classroom at Haydn Hall, the syncopated melody and the thick, dark chords evoked a feeling of dread that captivated me. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet quickly became one of my favorite musical compositions, and it sparked in me a passion for classical music that would continue to grow for years afterward.
I approached the large Victorian house with caution. This orchestral music seemed out of place in this backwoods town, and I felt compelled to follow it. I walked up the steps and onto the front porch. The music washed over me. I stood and drank in the sounds. I knew I was trespassing, but I could not walk away.
After a few minutes, the music suddenly stopped, jarring my reverie. I heard footsteps, then the sound of the door being unlocked. It opened very slightly and a Caucasian man in his 30s peered out at me. In a booming bass voice he asked, “What are you doing?”
It was a good question.
I answered, “Dance of the Knights.” His brow furrowed as he tried to process my response. Then I added, “From Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Heart-wrenching.” Evidently, my capacity to form complete sentences had abandoned me.
I fully expected the man to say, “Get off my property.” Instead, he asked, “Would you like to listen inside?”
He opened the door and I entered.
Inside, his home was well-kept and seemed to consist mostly of hardwood floors and clean, empty space. Speakers had been expertly placed at locations throughout the ground floor to produce optimal sound. Our footsteps reverberated as we walked into his living room. Despite the elaborate sound system, the man had no television that I could see. He invited me to sit down in one of his two easy chairs. He poured me a glass of ice water. Then he hit the PLAY button on his stereo and the CD began.
For the next three hours, a white man and a dark man sat together in a living room, in the Deep South, with their eyes closed, and nothing else existed … not name, not race, not ethnicity, not even title.
Nothing else existed except the Music.
And the Appreciation.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in Case Magazine, the magazine of Case Western Reserve University. Ranjit Souri ([email protected]) manages a theater school and teaches writing classes in Chicago.