Civil rights musical: Local filmmaker’s documentary on Sacramento Hyers Sisters to air on PBS

By Laura I. Winn

Susheel Bibbs.

Sacramento’s own Hyers Sisters are the civil rights and musical theater pioneers most people have never heard of. But thanks to local filmmaker Susheel Bibbs, the story of these African American sisters and their history-changing musical works of the late 1800s has been retold in the award-winning documentary, “Voices for Freedom: The Hyers Sisters’ Legacy,” airing Friday, Nov. 17 at 4 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 19 at 6:30 p.m. on PBS.
The Hyers Sisters, Anna and Emma, were young opera singers who at only 9 and 11 years of age debuted at Sacramento’s Metropolitan Theater in 1867. Heralded for their talent, they toured the United States in 1871 and then had plans to perform in Europe when as Bibbs tells it, “all Hell broke loose” after President Rutherford B. Hayes pulled troops out of the south and African Americans became disenfranchised and subjected to violence and lynchings by the Night Riders and other groups. The Hyers Sisters, children of the 1860s civil rights movement, felt they couldn’t leave their country and instead had to act. In response, they created the first American musicals, humanizing African Americans to white audiences through “stories of dignity, hopes and dreams,” says Bibbs.
During this tumultuous time, the Hyers Sisters used humor to poke fun at negative stereotypes and “as a testament to their bravery” were the first to have an integrated cast. “They wanted to showcase how African Americans had real stories of real people, not cartoons of minstrels. They showed how they wanted the American dream like anyone else,” explains Bibbs.
Bibbs, an accomplished opera singer in her own right, learned of the Hyers Sisters story while on tour in 2009. For the next seven years, Bibbs immersed herself in research, reading American musical theater history books, interviewing descendants still living in Sacramento, tracing genealogy records and visiting the gravesites at the Sacramento City Cemetery.
“Voices for Freedom,” Bibbs draws from that research to bring the story and the music of the Hyers Sisters to life with help from internationally-acclaimed mezzo soprano Tichina Vaughn and hip-hop narrator WolfHawkJaguar, among others. Bibbs says she chose a hip hop artist for one of the narrators to make the connection to the negative issues that continue to face African Americans today. “I wanted to show a very positive way of addressing these issues from this current vantage point.”
Noting how music connects people, Bibbs adds that spirituals, like the ones sung in the Hyers Sisters’ drama “Out of Bondage,” have an especially effective way of uplifting and inspiring everyone, regardless of color. “When people get caught up in that music, they could steel themselves against the dogs after them. They help transcend problems. I call them spirit songs because they raise the spirits of all people.”
It’s that musical connection that Bibbs says she hopes draws a wider audience to the film in comparison to her last documentary, “Meet Mary Pleasant: Mother of Civil Rights in California,” which also aired on PBS and screened at The Cannes Film Festival. In addition to the PBS broadcasts, “Voices for Freedom” is showing at film festivals across the country and recently won the 2017 Grand Festival Award at the Berkeley Video Film Festival.
Arts in River Park founder Brenda Jew Waters, a financial sponsor of the film, hosted a viewing party in her home for the PBS debut on November 15. Waters backed “Voices for Freedom” because she says she was intrigued by the story and believes in the talent and passion of Bibbs and her proven record of success.

For information on hosting a viewing party, buying the DVD or attending a film festival screening, visit

One Response to Civil rights musical: Local filmmaker’s documentary on Sacramento Hyers Sisters to air on PBS

  1. Laura did a fine job in reporting this material. Thank you

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