Alarming Missouri statistics and a mother’s fear inspire ‘driving while Black’ opera

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The NAACP issued a travel advisory in 2017 warning Black people not to drive in Missouri because of discrimination and racist attacks.

Two years later, state Attorney General Eric Schmitt issued a report that Black people were 91% more likely to be pulled over by police in Missouri.

And just this past week, a new report showed that while the numbers have improved, Black drivers were still 71% more likely to be pulled over in 2020 than white drivers, and 25% more likely to be arrested in Missouri.

That reality, mixed with the oppressive anxiety Black parents face when they give the car keys to their children, is explored in the opera “dwb (driving while black).”

Composed by Kansas City native Susan Kander with a libretto by Roberta Gumbel, also a Kansas City native and professor of voice at the University of Kansas, the 2018 opera has just been released on compact disc and as a download by Albany Records. UrbanArias, an opera company based in Washington, D.C., has also made a film version, which will be available for viewing online through October.

Written for soprano, cello and percussion, “dwb” was first performed by Gumbel with New Morse Code, an ensemble made up of cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello. A video of the original production is also available for viewing.

Kander first met Gumbel when the soprano sang the role of Harriet Tubman in Kander’s opera “She Never Lost a Passenger” in 1996. Their friendship deepened over the years when both were living in New York City. Gumbel returned to the Midwest while Kander remained in New York, but they stayed in contact and saw each other on Kander’s frequent returns home to visit family. (That family includes her nephew Jason Kander, the former Missouri secretary of state. Her uncle is famed Broadway composer John Kander. Her late father, Edward Kander, was the longtime director of development for the Lyric Opera.)

“Roberta has sung a bunch of my stuff over the years,” Kander said. “It was 2017, when her son just turned 15, and the NAACP had put out its travel advisory for Black men driving in Missouri, and so we were talking about that a lot.”

The opera “Driving While Black was created by librettist Roberta Gumbel, left, a professor of voice at the University of Kansas, and composer Susan Kander, a Kansas City native.
The opera “Driving While Black was created by librettist Roberta Gumbel, left, a professor of voice at the University of Kansas, and composer Susan Kander, a Kansas City native.

At the time, Gumbel was teaching voice at KU, where two of Kander’s other friends, Collins and Compitello, were also teaching.

“I remember saying to Roberta, ‘Hey, don’t you have to give a faculty recital sometime? Why don’t I write something for you?’” Kander said.

Kander and Gumbel brainstormed several ideas, but their conversations about the perils of driving while Black began to present a dramatic possibility.

“I had expressed my concern about my son’s safety,” Gumbel said. “So Susan said, ‘Let’s write about that.’ We looked for a librettist and couldn’t find one that was available, and Susan said, ‘You need to write it.’”

And she did. The result is a powerful, compact 45-minute chamber opera in which a mother reflects on the dangers her child faces. Her musings are occasionally interrupted with news bulletins referencing Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile and other real-life victims of racism.

“The narrative arc is raising my son from facing backwards in the car seat coming home from the hospital until I give him the car keys,” Gumbel said. “It illustrates how the mother’s fears grow as the child grows, as the world changes and you witness all of these horrible things. The awareness that those very things could happen to her child creates her anxiety about his driving while Black.”

Gumbel says that her anxiety is based not just on well-publicized cases but on her own personal experience. She says that one time her nephew was mistaken by the police for a suspect they were looking for.

“My nephew was a middle-schooler and was thrown in a paddy wagon,” Gumbel said. “The police drove off, and when they realized they got the wrong kid, they just put him out of the paddy wagon. He had no idea where he was. This was before the age of cellphones, and he had to find his way home. Those are the kinds of things that don’t make the news, but they are real.”

With the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, “dwb” has even more resonance. But it is more than an “issue opera.” Just as the political setting of Puccini’s “Tosca” (Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1800) is not as important as its theme of oppression, Gumbel hopes her opera might one day transcend the politics of America in the year 2021.

“You’d have to give me another 150 years or so to know, but, God willing, if we can get rid of systemic racism, then it will become about a mother’s fears and not about contemporary politics,” she said. “I don’t think you have to be Black to understand the mother’s concerns or her determination to make sure her son is not one more statistic in the newspaper. The desire to be safe in your own world is universal. Everybody deserves that.”

To purchase the recording, tinyurl.com/dt54au3t. To view the UrbanArias film, urbanarias.org. For information about viewing the original production and licensing the opera for performance, contact Susan Kander at Susan@susankander.net.

The work of Caroline Dahm will be showcased in Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company’s next production, “Art Remains.”
The work of Caroline Dahm will be showcased in Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company’s next production, “Art Remains.”

Wylliams/Henry Dance — ‘Art Remains’

The Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company will present its first live, in-person performance since 2019 on June 18 and 19 at Hotel Kansas City’s Tudor Ballroom. “Art Remains” will allow this incredibly vibrant company to bring its pent-up energy to an emotional program expressing loss, anger and the importance of connection.

One of the works is “Sweet in the Morning” choreographed by Leni Wylliams, who co-founded the company with Mary Pat Henry in 1991.

“I have only allowed Leni’s work to be performed by five dancers in 30 years,” Henry, the company’s artistic director, wrote in an email. “It takes a special dancer to dance the work with the same quality as Leni.”

The program will also showcase works by two emerging choreographers, Tristian Griffin and Caroline Dahm, both company members.

“I feel this will be a beautiful concert with three of the works speaking to all the emotional issues we have gone through during these pandemic times,” Henry wrote.

7:30 p.m. June 18 and 19. Hotel Kansas City, 1228 Baltimore Ave. $20-$30. wylliams-henry.org.

You can reach Patrick Neas at patrickneas@kcartsbeat.com and follow his Facebook page, KC Arts Beat, at www.facebook.com/kcartsbeat.

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