On Opera Stage, A Mom Agonizes Over Fate Of Son Driving While Black

Alison Sanders as the mother in Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel’s ‘dwb’ at Opera Birmingham. (Photos by Stewart Edmonds unless otherwise indicated)

BIRMINGHAM, AL – In a riveting and timely production by Opera Birmingham, the fearful anxiety of an African-American mother preparing her young son to drive for the first time unfolded on Jan. 27.

“You are not who they see” echoed poignantly through dwb (driving while black), the one-act opera by composer Susan Kander and librettist Roberta Gumbel. Completed in 2018, it has been performed in Kansas City, Des Moines, New York, Washington, and other locations. The opera opened here on the same night the horrific Tyre Nichols police video of events in Memphis — less than four hours’ drive from Birmingham — was released globally.

Audiences are taken from a boy’s infancy and early childhood through adolescence, to the day when he must drive solo and gain his freedom in an uncertain racial environment.

Composer Susan Kander (left) and librettist Roberta Gumbel. (photo: Michael Huebner)

Originally part of Opera Birmingham’s 2021-22 season, dwb was postponed because of Covid-19. Two performances were scheduled in 2023, but another was added because of sellouts at the Red Mountain Theatre complex, near the University of Alabama’s Birmingham campus south of downtown. In less than an hour, the opera packs more of an emotional punch than most full-length grand operas, largely for its suggested, though not overt, references to real-life incidents involving George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and numerous others. Lively discussions among staff, cast, and audience members, still raw from the Nichols news reports, took place before and after the show.

Scored for solo voice and two instrumentalists, dwb tackles racial prejudice through the eyes of a single mother whose husband has died of cancer. As the mother, Allison Sanders (a mother herself) was convincing and authentic. Her radiant, penetrating soprano embodied the trauma parents must endure when allowing their children the freedom to sit behind the steering wheel.

Early in the 13-scene opera, the aria “My beautiful brown boy” touched hearts in a lullaby from the mother to her newborn son. A plaintive cello, glockenspiel, and marimba accompaniment helped cement the bond gently and lovingly.

Scene changes were announced by the instrumentalists, most interrupted by “bulletins” of news broadcasts reporting violent incidents. Props included two car seats and a large metallic sculpture against a dark backdrop. Suggested imagery progressed from a tense situation at a Miami Beach pool to a young man with a hoodie and another with a gun at a suburban apartment complex.

In her role as the mother, Sanders’ vocal narrative traversed a wide gamut of emotional content: her affectionate praise to her son for getting a B+ on his report card; a powerful vocalise punctuated by driving rhythms from the cello and percussion; the recollection of a 12-year-old boy walking innocently in a park and soon pursued by police. Gunshots into a car were silently portrayed by the instrumentalists on stage by waves of a drumstick and cello bow, strongly suggesting another real-life incident.

Allison Sanders with cellist Cremaine Booker and percussionist David Verin.

Cellist Cremaine Booker and percussionist David Verin navigated Kander’s evocative score with passion and precision. Sanders, a sensitive, resonant, and powerful vocalist, formed a tight blend with the duo.

While dwb focused on the brutality that countless families experience in this racially divided world, its gravity was heightened on several fronts by this production. Foremost was the operatic medium itself, which has the power to embolden already visceral content through music. Next was the location, a city whose reputation has been tarnished by 1960s footage of fire hoses, church bombings, protests, a children’s march, and a corrupt police chief.

Opening night attracted a mixed-race audience, and much of the post-performance discussion focused on whether opera can bridge the racial gap.

Gumbel’s libretto digs deep to the heart of this issue. A renowned soprano and University of Kansas faculty member whose career spans Broadway, jazz, and opera, she has masterfully woven episodes of her own life into the story.

“There were a lot of personal things, and a lot of family things, and there were other things that were pulled directly from the news,” said Gumbel in an interview before last season’s postponement. “All we’re doing is telling a story that has been told many, many times before, but never had an audience.”

Sanders’ ‘radiant, penetrating soprano embodied the trauma parents must endure when allowing their children the freedom to sit behind the steering wheel.’

Kander has established a considerable reputation in opera and chamber music, having received commissions from the opera companies of Minnesota, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Columbus. Her lucid vocal scoring in dwb was economical, yet vividly tied to the suggested scenery and story telling.

“Opera is the one art form that goes right into your heart without traveling first through your brain,” said Kander. “If you want to tell that kind of visceral story, and you want the people in the audience to feel what the characters in the story are feeling, you can’t do better than opera.”

Founded in 1955, Opera Birmingham had long focused on traditional operatic fare, but under Keith Wolfe-Hughes, the company’s general director since 2015, it has become a purveyor of recent chamber opera.

“Our commitment is to do one chamber work a year,” Wolfe-Hughes said. “With one exception, the chamber works have all been contemporary pieces written since 2000.”

These include Sidney Marquez Boquiren and Daniel Neer’s Independence Eve, Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, Ricky Ian Gordon’s Green Sneakers and Orpheus and Eurydice, and Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers.

A new commission, Touch, an opera about Helen Keller by Carla Lucero and Marianna Mott Newirth, is slated to premiere next season.