Emmett Till, A New American Opera, conceived by white playwright and librettist Clare Coss and composer Mary D. Watkins, will have its world premiere March 23 with an encore performance on March 24 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College. Both performances begin at 7 PM. The production is co-presented by John Jay College, Opera Noire International, The Harlem Chamber Players, and Harlem Arts Alliance.
The opera will star mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford as Mamie Till, tenor Robert Mack as Emmett Till, mezzo-soprano Abigail Wright as Roanne Taylor, soprano Amanda Rose Austin as Carolyn Bryant, baritone Justin Ryan as Roy Bryant, contralto Karmesha Peake as Aunt Lizzy, and baritone Markell Reed as Maurice Wright. Malcolm Merriweather serves as chorus master, with Kyle Walker as rehearsal pianist.
Conducted by 2021 Pulitzer Prize winner Tania León, the production centers around the murder of Emmett Till and explores themes of social justice, the flaws within the justice system, white silence and allyship, racial inequality, and the complexities of the human experience.
Based on Coss’ award-winning 2013 play Emmett, Down in My Heart, the opera reimagines the events around the tragic murder of Till, a 14 year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Following his mother’s brave decision to have an open casket funeral so that the world would see what was done to her son, the lynching of Emmett Till became a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement and stands as a turning point in the racial reckoning of this country.
In the opera, the story is approached through the lens of Roanne Taylor, a young white woman who teaches high school science in Drew, Mississippi. Roanne is against Jim Crow laws, segregation and the racial inequality that she sees around her but remains silent. She is the opera’s only fictional character and represents what Martin Luther King Jr. called the ultimate tragedy, “the silence of the good people.”
Featuring both a Black Chorus and a white Chorus, Emmett Till weaves the horrific murder of Till with Mamie Till-Mobley’s transformation from private citizen to activist, Uncle Mose Wright’s bold decision to break the Delta code and testify at the trial, and Roanne Taylor’s journey toward a sense of responsibility.
The story of Emmett Till has a personal significance for Coss who was attending Louisiana State University at the time and was haunted by his murder. Decades later, she was compelled to find a way to honor his mother’s ongoing fight to “keep telling Emmett’s story."
“Emmett Till was murdered not far upriver from where I was a junior at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge," shares Cross. "No one in my largely white world would talk about what happened, a child brutally tortured and lynched—the breakdown of justice. White supremacy and Jim Crow ruled. Over the years, the pain of Emmett’s murder continued to plague my heart. In 1992, I awoke one morning with a spiritual mandate to write a play about Emmett Till. I approached writing about him through my conviction that this tragedy is shared, in the way the tragic history of this country is shared. White people as perpetrators and witnesses of white supremacy have a stake in this story. I want people to understand that it was not so long ago. Emmett Till is in our lifetime. He is in MY lifetime. I want people to understand the grave parallels between the world over 60 years ago to today’s world, from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin to Daunte Wright. It is still happening and we must continue to shed light on these stories. I am reminded of Mamie Till-Mobley’s words, ‘The world must see what was done to my son. The world must help me tell the story.’ And so we will.”
After the debut of the play, Emmett, Down in My Heart, Coss was encouraged by musician friends Lucille Field and Patsy Rogers to translate the play into a libretto. They introduced Coss and Watkins and, together, the two began their creative journey, followed by five years of development, workshops, and three sing-throughs to bring the opera to life. For Watkins, this project is also intensely personal and has been a labor of love:
“Setting music to Clare’s Emmett Till libretto has been an exciting challenge for me," says Watkins. "I remember when Emmett Till was murdered, and the horror and sadness of it that affected me so deeply. I grew up in Colorado yet knew first-hand about discrimination. The difference between my southern sisters and brothers and me was that I was one Black person among 50 or 60 white people at any given time every day of the week except Sunday. I lived in a white neighborhood where some of my neighbors were blatant racists…and I dealt with that pain through drawing, storytelling and music. I never expected that I would write an opera about Emmett Till’s lynching, but I am deeply grateful that I have been given this opportunity to examine one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. I am an eclectic composer, and this opera has given me the space to exercise a wide range of musical expression to establish empathy for the characters and the complex emotional texture of the period.”
After each performance WQXR host Terrance McKnight will moderate a talkback with the artists.
For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit EmmettTillOpera.com