Mom turns mourning into music

Poem by Alice Norris' daughter, killed at 14 on West Side, was sung at June 10 Yo-Yo Ma concert

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By Michael Romain

Editor

Alice Norris, a longtime Oak Park resident, has become an expert in the art of turning her mourning into something sublime. Her daughter, 14-year-old Rolanda LaKeisha Marshall, was killed in 1993 while she sat inside of a fast food restaurant on the West Side, the accidental victim of a drive-by shooting. 

"Rolanda had something to offer this world," Norris told a Chicago Tribune reporter around the time her daughter — a gifted student with a perfect attendance record and artistic flair. "It was like a beautiful life taken for absolutely no reason. It wasn't something she did. It is so senseless, so destructive."

Norris has emerged from that dark, chaotic period 25 years ago by attaching her daughter's memory to purposeful pursuits. In 2014, she brought fabric from two of her daughter's favorite outfits, which was stitched into a quilt created by volunteers with the Mother's Dream Quilt Project, an initiative sponsored by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

And on Sunday, June 10, a poem that Marshall wrote about her favorite color, purple, debuted as a song performed by Takesha Meshé Kizart, an American operatic soprano, in a concert that will also feature musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Chicago Children's Choir, and the world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. 

"The color of love is purple; a royal color, a color that is loyal," begins Marshall's poem, which was printed in her obituary. 

The concert took place at St. Sabina Church on Chicago's South Side. Officials with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association noted in a statement that the event, formally called Concert for Peace, was produced by the Negaunee Music Institute at the CSO "and marks an ongoing effort to deepen the [Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association's] presence in and support of communities across the South Side of Chicago." 

"Yo-Yo Ma came in last year and he did a concert at St. Sabina for people who lost their children to violence," Norris said during a recent phone interview. "Back then, he decided that he and the CSO would write songs for us." 

Norris said the process involved sitting down with symphony members to figure out composition. She felt a special connection to Kizart, given how similar the soprano's name is to her daughter's middle name. 

As for the performance, Norris said she visited a recording studio recently where musicians are working to record the song for a CD. She described Kizart's musical rendition of her daughter's poem as "heart-wrenching and touching."  

"My daughter wrote that poem six months before she was killed," Norris said. "She talked about love all the time, which is what I talk about all the time." 

According to CSOA officials, the Concert for Peace was developed with guidance from Father Michael Pfleger, St. Sabina's pastor, and "builds on the belief of [CSO music director Riccardo Muti] and Ma that art and music play a vital role in not only addressing, but helping to solve the serious issues that confront our society."

In a video conversation with Ma (who said "the worst thing that can happen to any parent is the loss of a child"), Pfleger explained that the concert will help parents of murdered children move from "the pain of my loss to the purpose of saving others.

"This project is helping to heal them," he said, "but it also helps them to celebrate their child. Remembrance to me is one of the gifts of life."

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com     

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