A new opera based on the life of Emmett Till is receiving the ire of opera fans who want the production stopped.
According to PIX11 News, a Change.org petition of over 12,000 signatures is calling for the cancellation of Emmett Till, A New American Opera, set to debut Mar. 23-24 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College. The opera focuses on Till’s tragic death at the hands of two white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman, which was later revealed to be false. The opera is based on Clare Coss’ play Emmett, Down In My Heart. Coss also wrote the libretto. While Coss, who is white, is behind the creation of the opera, she worked with Black composer Mary D. Watkins.
Mya Bishop, a student at John Jay College, launched the petition because she felt that the opera made a mockery of the lives of Black children who have been killed by white violence.
“I started this petition because Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and all the other Black children who have been killed by anti-Black racists are human beings,” she said to PIX11 News. “They deserve for their stories to center them and should not be used to explore white alliedness.”
According to Newsweek, the people who agree with the petition feel like Coss’ involvement centers her take on Till’s death. Even worse, the opera allegedly focuses on a white female character created for the opera. According to Bishop’s petition, the film’s central character is Roanne Taylor, “a fictional white school teacher…who was supposedly ‘progressive’ and ‘against’ Jim Crow and racial inequality.'”
"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 self and her white feelings," Bishop wrote.
“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.”
However, Cross told PIX 11 News that her opera doesn't center whiteness.
“It isn’t a white-centered character,” she said. “Mamie Till[-Mobley] is the main character. I do have a white character who, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, represents the silent people who care, and that’s the greatest tragedy.”
Nina Flowers, the spokesperson for the opera, emailed Newsweek that she feels the opera’s message has been “lost in translation,” saying that the perception that Cross as the opera’s “sole creator” is untrue, mentioning Watkin’s involvement.
“The petition completely minimizes Ms. Watkins’ role,” she said. “…Both Ms. Cross and Ms. Watkins have worked tirelessly to develop this work together for the last several years and it is such a disservice to her hard work, contributions and input in this piece to suggest otherwise.” Flowers also reasserted that the opera’s central character is Till-Mobley.
“The opera also addresses other themes and character POVs including the bravery of Till’s uncle Mose Wright, the failure of the justice system, and the quandary of the white schoolteacher who represents the concepts of white silence and white supremacy,” Flowers continued.
Despite this, the Black Opera Alliance has issued a statement about the opera on Instagram, writing that they as a group "denounce the telling of this historic story by a white woman and from a white vantage point."
“It is time for Black creators to be given opportunities to expand the operatic canon with authentic storytelling from our own perspectives,” they said. “Carolyn Bryant (the white woman who falsely accused Emmett Till) still walks free, and now she can walk into a theater and see the story of the lie she got away with–through the eyes of a fictional, fellow white woman.”
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"While we feel for the Black people involved in this opera, we do not support the rehashing of Black trauma for white entertainment," the group continued.
“By centering a white character in a story of Black trauma, the librettist, Clare Coss takes an experience she has no claim to and centers whiteness. White saviorism is not allyship, it is violence, and we condemn it. It is time for Black joy in opera, Black love in opera, Black triumph in opera, from Black perspectives, and we will continue to work for that progress.”