Nearly 50 years after Emmett Till’s death, the composer of a new opera based on his murder wants her show to inspire conversations around racism. Emmett Till, A New American Opera, is inspired by the story of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was brutally beaten and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Composer Mary D. Watkins, who is Black, spent eight years working with writer Clare Coss, who is white, to create the opera based on a play Coss wrote in the early 1990s. Both women were teenagers when Till’s lynching happened, and both say the tragic event impacted them deeply. “This was our child, this is our story. It’s not just a story to be told by a Black person,” said Watkins.“The failure of justice, the trial, the denial of dealing with this was life-changing,” Coss said. “It turned me into an activist.”
Till’s mother is one of the opera’s main characters. But it is a fictional character created for the show that is causing controversy. The character, created by Coss, is a white school teacher who witnesses Till’s murder but does nothing about it at the time but eventually goes on to become an advocate for justice. Coss says the character represents “people who care but are silent.”
The opera is scheduled to premiere on March 23 at John Jay College Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City. Two performances are already sold out, but a Change.org petition was created to have the show canceled. With over 13,000 signatures, the petition says the opera is more concerned with soothing white guilt than advocating for social justice.
“White perspectives should not be centered in the stories of lynched Black children,” said John Jay student Mya Bishop. “That’s not my only problem with the play…It is still unacceptable to generate profit from the likeness of a deceased child, and that child’s now-deceased mother, both of whom are unable to receive justice.”
The horrifying story of Till’s murder made headlines when Jet Magazine published a photo from his open-casket funeral. Till’s mother said she wanted the world to see what racists had done to her only son. Although no one associated with Till’s murder served any jail time, Carolyn Bryant, Till’s accuser, would later admit that she was never harassed.
The Black Opera Alliance, an organization dedicated to empowering Black classical artists and administrators, released this statement on Instagram:
“The Black Opera Alliance empathizes with and supports the Black artists and producers involved in the upcoming production of ‘Emmett Till, The Opera,’ but we 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 perspective. 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.
“While we feel for the Black people involved in this opera, we do not support the rehashing of Black trauma for white entertainment. 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.”
Despite the criticism, stars of the production say it’s important that the story be told in order to expose the ugly truths of racism. “The story must be told, and why not use every art form that exists? Let it be a book, let it be poetry, let it be a painting, let it be opera, let it be on Broadway, let it be on TV. Now let it be accurate, of course. But don’t shun any genre, any idiom that can be used to tell the story,” said Robert Mack who plays Till in the opera.