The activist's words and deeds inspire an opera.

The last words of Columbus activist-poet MarShawn McCarrel captured the attention of New York musician Joe Young. “My demons won today. I'm sorry,” the 23-year-old McCarrel wrote on his Facebook page in February 2016 shortly before taking his own life on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse.

“That was just a powerful and chilling thing to read,” says Young, an Army reservist who teaches resilience to soldiers and is studying to earn a master's degree in musical composition. “In a matter of minutes I was in a rabbit hole of reading his poetry and learning all these wonderful things he'd done for his community.”

A year later, Young found a way to tell the story of McCarrel's life by writing an opera. “MarShawn,” a production in just seven scenes, made its world debut in May on the stage at New York's Hunter College. With a libretto drawn almost entirely from McCarrel's poems and social media posts, the opera recounts how McCarrel started writing, traveled to national poetry competitions, founded a volunteer initiative to offer free lunches on the West Side and was honored for his work as a community organizer in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Young expressed the entwined optimism and sadness of McCarrel's life, which was covered in an October 2016 Columbus Monthly feature story, by using the same musical motif for the tweet that opens the opera—“All everyone needs is love”—and the tragic Facebook post that closes it.

“I didn't want people to first remember him as the person who took his life,” says Young. “I'd rather have people know him as this amazing person who did so much for his community and was so talented … and second, who suffered stresses from activism that led to him taking his life.”

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