By: Serach Nissim
A petition to cancel a CUNY school production of an opera about Emmett Till gained momentum Saturday.
As reported by the NY Post, the play set to debut on March 23 came under fire, with over 11,000 signatures appealing to cancel the show. The work, “Emmett Till, A New American Opera”, slated to premier at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theatre, tells the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman. His murder had led to a rally in the civil rights movement. Critics claim, however, that the production — written by white librettist Clare Coss, tells the story from the lens of a white writer.
The play, “explores themes of social justice, the flaws within the justice system, white silence and allyship, racial inequality and the complexities of the human experience,” as per its synopsis. The petition’s author, Mya Bishop, says the opera frames the tragedy through the eyes of a “fictional progressive white woman” concerned with her white guilt. “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,” Bishop wrote.
The Black Opera Alliance also denounced the opera on social media, asserting that the work focuses on the perspective of a fictional white school teacher. “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”, the organization posted.
Coss, 86, replied defending her stance. The play’s composer, Mary D. Watkins, who is black, also defended Coss, calling her “an ally” and “life-long activist”. She said the petition “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,” Watkins stated in an official statement. “It is a true story that happened in our American history that could be told by anyone… 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.”
A CUNY spokesperson said the opera was an “outside production” and declined to comment.