After facing multiple cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UT Tyler R. Don Cowan Fine and Performing Arts Center will host its first live performance in over a year featuring a star-studded cast next month.
“Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles” will showcase the music of world-renowned singer, songwriter, pianist and composer Ray Charles, who pioneered the soul music genre in the 1950s, on May 11 at the Cowan Center.
Susan Thomae-Morphew, the Cowan Center’s executive director, called the return of a live show “incredible” after the last three shows of the 2019-20 season had to be canceled due to COVID-19.
“We’re so excited to have a live performance and a concert. It’s so joyous to have music in the center again,” she said. “The anticipation has been there since last summer, but this is the lone survivor in our 20-21 season that we’re getting to present it and it makes all the more special.”
She noted that the other shows for this season (2020-21) pulled out of performing at the center, making the “Georgia On My Mind” the only show of the season.
Charles, a Georgia native, was named to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He received a Kennedy Honors and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He was blind and often referred to as “The Genius.”
The show celebrates his music with award-winning artists, including 10-time Grammy award-winning acapella gospel group Take 6, saxophonist and member of The Blue Brothers Tom Scott, singer-songwriter Clint Holmes and jazz singer Nnenna Freelon.
Thomae-Morphew said she’s looking forward to people seeing the performers show Cowan Center patrons their “major talent.”
“These musicians are so excited; I think the energy in the room is going to be amazing. The music of Ray Charles speaks to generations,” Thomae-Morphew said. “With all these talented people, they’re going to bring the house down.”
Freelon, who said the trip to Tyler will be her first since the pandemic, said she’s nervous, yet super excited about the show. She’s looking forward to celebrating Charles and coming together with artists she has collaborated with in the past.
“We’re like a family. So it’s going to be like a reunion really,” Freelon said. “Coming together to celebrate Ray Charles is like a special production. I had the awesome privilege of working with him in the 90s. In a way, he’s an ancestor, he’s gone but he left a legacy.”
She called coming together with artists she’s known for years to perform a once-in-a-lifetime event.
She said a lot of people copied Charles, but no one could compare.
“He was a genius,” she said. “You see his presence in all genres. He’s a real master I would say. I said ‘yes’ almost before the sentence (about being asked to be in the show) was finished. One because I have a history with Ray, more than that his music still lives.”
Freelon said anyone in their 50s or 60s will know Charles’ music well, while younger people will understand the feeling when coming to the show.
She added that she’s missed performing for an audience and seeing people following COVID-19-related isolation and cancellations.
“I think people are ready to get out of the house,” Freelon said. “I think during these beginning steps of coming out of the quarantine, I think people are going to realize what they missed (about seeing performances).”
Freelon has been performing professionally for 35 years, but she started singing at her church and in her local community as a kid. She said her mother is from Texarkana, and she’s excited to get some barbeque while in Tyler.
She hopes that attendees will come out to the show “ready to have fun.”
“We have not had enough fun. So come ready to have fun, and to enjoy the gifts of music,” Freelon said. “And so, that’s what I’m coming to do.”
For the safety of attendees, there will be a number of COVID-19 protocols in place as live performances make a return, Thomae-Morphew said. This includes only about a 25 to 30% seating capacity as people will only be sitting on every other row as well as distancing between each seat.
UT Tyler’s policies regarding mask-wearing will also be followed for the show.
Thomae-Morphew said the box office staff is hearing pure joy and lots of excitement as patrons find out the show they purchased a ticket for is still happening.
“Our box office called every single person that already had tickets to the show because we had to reseat according to the COVID protocols,” she said. “And they were energized with each patron because everyone said that’s fine and they were just happy to come back. I think we’ll have it filled (allowable capacity) by the night (of the show).”
Tickets for the show, which is set for 7:30 p.m. May 11, can be purchased by calling the box office at 903-566-7424 or visiting the website, cowancenter.org.