A petition created by John Jay College student Mya Bishop on Change.org calling for the cancellation of the upcoming world premiere of Emmett Till, A New American Opera has garnered more than 8,000 signatures. The work, which tells the real-life story of the murder of a Black teenager that spurred the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, is currently set to have its world premiere at John Jay College's Gerald W. Lynch Theatre March 23-24.
Adapted from white playwright Clare Coss' 2013 play Emmett, Down in My Heart, the new work has music by Black composer Mary D. Watkins and a libretto by Coss. Bishop and other critics have taken issue with Coss' involvement with the piece and its alleged focus on a fictional white woman. The play and its opera adaptation include an invented character, a young white woman who teaches high school science in Dew, Mississippi who is against Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the racial inequality that she sees around her but remains silent. The character was intended to represent, according to production notes, "what Martin Luther King Jr. called the ultimate tragedy, 'the silence of the good people.'"
"Clare Coss has creatively centered her white guilt by using this play to make the racially motivated brutal torture and murder of a 14-year-old child about her white self and her white feelings," writes Bishop in the petition. "Telling the story from the perspective of a fictional progressive white woman shows that Clare Coss is more concerned with showing the audience that 'not all white people are bad' than she is with the ongoing fight for racial justice."
The casting of adult tenor Robert Mack in the role of Till has also drawn controversy, with the petition asserting that it "exacerbates the adultification of Black children which has historically led to their brutalization."
"If we are going to tell the story of Emmett Till, it should only be from a Black perspective, a Black writer, and [with] permission and approval from Till's family. ... John Jay College brands itself as a 'social justice school' and its community as 'fierce advocates for justice.' Its decision to welcome or cancel this play will determine how true that is."
Both Wakins and Coss provided Playbill with statements in response to the petition and controversy surrounding the project. Both statements are provided in full below.
"It is very disturbing that people are condemning this piece without having seen or heard it," writes Watkins. "They have jumped on the fact that the playwright is white and assumed all kinds of things about the content of the play. Even though there are many artists of color involved in this project, the critics are assuming that we have had no impact on the final shape of the piece and that the playwright has somehow forced all of us to tell her story. It is an insult to me as a Black woman and to the company members who are African-American.
"Yes, the opera has a fictional white character—but it isn't about her. It is a true story that happened in our American history that could be told by anyone. Documentaries have been made, books have been written, songs have been sung by those moved to express their reaction to the true story of the brutal murder of a 14-year-old boy. The story is told from the viewpoint of one who recognizes that staying silent, instead of confronting a vicious system, allows the dehumanization of human beings to be a way of life. She comes to the realization that she and others like her have a responsibility to speak out and condemn racism.
"Also, I am very sad to see Clare Coss being criticized so harshly. She is an ally, a life-long activist who has worked hard for eight long years to develop this piece and to raise the funds to produce the first two performances. She has been very respectful to me and all the other artists of color on this project. It is my opinion that she has every right as an artist to tell the story of Emmett Till."
Coss echoed many of Watkins' thoughts in her own statement.
"Composer Mary Watkins and I have been collaborating on the creation of Emmett Till the opera since 2013. Mary was 15 in 1955 and I was 20, each of us deeply and differently impacted by the barbaric lynching of 14-year old Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta, and the failure of justice. To illuminate lifelong heartfelt pain—Mary through her profound music, me through words—our dual partnership advanced and expanded with the artists who joined us along the way. To work with Mary Watkins is a privilege.
"The courage of Mamie Till, the Wright family, young Willie Reed and his family, and others to testify in an armed Klan courtroom, under death threats, broke the Delta Code. The opera introduces to the general audience what Mary Watkins calls 'the greatness of ordinary people, who stood up, suffered, and continued to struggle to bring about change in this country.
"The one invented white character, Roanne Taylor, a schoolteacher who cares but is silent, reflects Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ultimate tragedy: the silence of the good people. She represents the context of White Supremacy in which the world of violence and terror was enabled. She takes a first step forward to break the silence.
"The words of Mamie Till Mobley are a steady guidepost: 'You must continuously tell Emmett Till’s story until everyone’s consciousness rises. Only then will there be justice for Emmett Till.'"