North Central College - Naperville, IL

Soulful program highlights Black History Month

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Henry Pleas, tenor
Henry Pleas, tenor

On Feb. 23 during Black History Month, North Central College will feature “Deep River: A Spiritual Journey,” a live musical presentation and original narrative about African slaves who lived along the Great River before the Civil War.

The free program will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, in North Central’s Koten Chapel at Kiekhofer Hall, 329 E. School St., Naperville.

“Deep River: A Spiritual Journey” is also the title of a CD, recorded in 1999, and features soloist Henry Pleas, an accomplished tenor who’s studied and performed worldwide, pianist Chris Garofalo and the Rev. Dr. Sylvia Pleas, narrator and creator of the original story in “Deep River.” These same artists will perform Feb. 23.

Sylvia crafted the story as an encouragement for her son, tenor Henry Pleas, who, during his teenage years, was not proud of his name or musical talents. Her story of fiction centers on an adult slave, also named Henry, who had a strong baritone voice and sang spirituals at evening worship services in his church along the Great River. Henry had a hard life and was brutally beaten whenever he tried to write his name—something he longed to learn to do.

Henry heard other slaves talk about a place called freedom train landing across the water where everyone lived free and proud. He dreamed of going there someday. Unknown to Henry, whenever he sang his preacher’s favorite song, “Deep River,” it was a signal to certain slaves to escape for the freedom train landing. For years, Henry sang his song while other slaves made their way across the river by boat and to freedom.

As Sylvia narrates her story, piano accompaniment and Henry’s soulful songs intermingle throughout the program for a moving presentation.

At home on the operatic stage and intimate recital halls, Henry has sung under conductors Helmut Rilling, Christoph Eschenbach, James Conlon, Bruno Bartoletti and Roger Norrington and performed the title role in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman,” Turriddu in “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Don Jose in “Carmen.” He has also appeared as soloist in presentations of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” Handel’s “Messiah,” Mozart’s “Requiem,” Vaughan Williams’ “Hodie” and the extended cantata, “Done Made my Vow” by American composer Adolphus Hailstork with the Grand Rapids Symphony. His recent performances with Chamber Opera Chicago in “Maria la O” were described as “riveting” by For more information visit

As a pianist, Garofalo has performed in the Chicago area for many years and composed works for solo piano, voice and choral ensembles. He received a master of arts degree in piano performance from the Manhattan School of Music and is director of music at the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale and maintains a private teaching studio.

Sylvia is a retired United Methodist pastor with master’s and doctoral degrees from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She’s a 1978 graduate of North Central College and the mother of Dorothy Pleas, North Central’s director of multicultural affairs.

This program is supported by North Central College’s offices of institutional advancement and ministry and service. Nicor and Sara Lee are co-sponsors of this and other Black History Month events at North Central. CDs of “Deep River” will be available for sale the night of the performance.

USG Corporation and Navistar, Inc. are underwriting sponsors of North Central College’s 2011-2012 Sesquicentennial Fine & Performing Arts Season. This program is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency. This performance is one of many ongoing programs at North Central College to enrich and broaden the cultural and academic outlook for the College and community. North Central offers a variety of venues accommodating a rich range of local and world-class events, performances and space needs for the public. For a comprehensive schedule of musical performances, theatrical and dance productions, art exhibits and lectures, visit or call the box office at 630-637-SHOW (7469).