One day, a white woman woke up in the morning and decided that making an opera about Emmett Till was a good idea. That white woman got a bunch of Black people involved—whom she would have needed to in order to make this even plausibly OK—but that won’t change the fact that Black people’s response to the very idea of the opera will range from skeptical to “WTF is this caucasified sh** here?”
If history has taught us nothing else, one would think it obvious that it’s taught us nothing having to do with Emmett Till that begins with a white woman ends well.
Anyway, “Emmett Till,” the Opera “will have its world premiere March 23 with an encore performance on March 24 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College” in New York City, according to Playbill, the monthly magazine about theatrical productions. The opera was written by playwright and audacious white woman Clare Coss, who based it on her award-winning 2013 play, “Emmett, Down in My Heart.”
Here’s the description as reported by Playbill:
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.”
So, to recap: A white woman writes an Emmett Till play that centers on a fictional white woman and her equally fictional white savior coming of age journey? Got it.
Now, look—I haven’t seen the play and I don’t plan on seeing the opera. All I’m saying is that when white people tell Black stories through the lens of whiteness, you don’t get a Black history story that benefits Black people, you get a “Black” story sanitized for white consumption.
It’s also worth mentioning that the play features a Black woman composer, Mary D. Watkins, a Black woman conductor, Tania León, and Liz Player, a Black woman clarinetist and the founder, executive and artistic director of The Harlem Chamber Players. And these are just a few of the Black people involved in the production.
Still, the Black response to the premise matters. Walk up to a random Black person and say: “Hey bruh, did you know Emmett Till’s story is being made into an opera? Did you know the opera is the brainchild of a white woman? Did you know this white woman-created Emmett Till opera went out of its way to star a fictional white woman who has nothing to do with the real story?”
Suffice to say, said Black person will likely look at you like you just informed them that Donald Trump was producing a Jim Crow documentary called “Very Fine People On Both Sides.”
To give you a clue, here are some Black Twitter reactions.
It should be lost on no one that this opera comes on the heels of the U.S. Senate passing an anti-lynching bill named for Emmett Till after more than a century of failed attempts to pass bills of its like. Of course, since lynching is already very much illegal and hate crime statutes are already a thing, the passing of this bill seems largely symbolic.
But there’s Emmett Till symbolism, and then there’s Emmett Till theatre. The latter is going to be a hard sell for Black America no matter how many Black people are involved in the production. This just isn’t a good look.
So how do y’all feel about “Emmett Till,” the opera?