“Ceiling/Sky” is, in librettist June Jordan’s description, an “earthquake/romance,” that intertwines the lives and amorous vectors of seven young inner city Angelinos at the time of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Dewain, an amiable and easy-going black man, has just returned from jail for a minor drug violation. He hopes to get his life on the right track with his girlfriend Consuelo, a Salvadoran refugee, and their baby boy. Leila, beautiful and brainy but naïve in matters of the heart, counsels young girls like Consuelo at the local women’s health clinic, advising them about sex and birth control. Leila is pursued by David, the silver-tongued and decidedly randy Baptist minister who’s bent on adding her name to his long list of conquests. Their neighborhood is policed by Mike, an LAPD rookie cop, who secretly has a thing for the handsome Dewain. Tiffany, a “news-as-entertainment” TV reporter, rides around in Mike’s squad car with him, but just can’t understand why Mike won’t return her advances.
In ”Song about Arresting a Particular Individual” Mike has caught Dewain stealing two bottles of beer and explains into Tiffany’s camera the correct technique for arresting a black man. Dewain resists, thereby upping the ante to a felony. Mike’s palpable frustration with Dewain has nothing to do with the theft, of course.
The sight of Mike handcuffing Dewain and reading him his rights infuriates the neighborhood. In “Song about the On-Site Altercation” the locals surround Mike and Tiffany on the street and exchange angry and indignant accusations. Tiffany is thrilled with the violence, as she has captured it all on video for her news show.
Dewain, despite the best efforts of Rick, his Vietnamese-American attorney, to defend him, ends up back in prison. But the earthquake breaks down its walls, and in his “Song of Liberation and Surprise” Dewain realizes that freedom is both physical as well as spiritual.