Petitions to cancel opera on Emmet Till at John Jay College

Misheel Bayasgalan

“Emmett Till, A New American Opera” opened at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theatre on March 23, despite a petition with over 10,000  signatures circulating to cancel the show just few days before opening night.

The opera was created by playwright Clare Coss, composed by Mary D. Watkins and conducted by Tania León. Based on Coss’ 2013 play, “Emmett, Down in My Heart,” the opera retells the 1955 events surrounding the tragic murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Mississippi, through the lens of his white schoolteacher – Roanne Taylor.

“Following his mother’s brave decision to have an open casket funeral so that the world would see what was done to her son, the lynching of Emmett Till became a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement” Margaret Hall wrote in an article for Playbill.

The question of “Who is the main focus of the opera?” is the root of the petition, authored by Mya Bishop.

The intentions of the creators were to have Mamie Till-Mobley’s transformation into a prominent civil rights activist following the death of her son as the central focus of the opera.

Bishop believes the story rather centers on the narrator. Because of this, the story warps into a narrative not in support of the ongoing fight for racial justice, but rather an attempt to tell the audience that “not all white people are bad.

“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 in her petition.

Bishop continues to point out that the portrayal of Emmett Till by an adult actor is problematic because it “exacerbates the adultification of Black children which has historically led to their brutalization,”  “It is erroneously asserted that Clare Coss is the sole creator and driver of the opera when, in fact, the opera was co-created with renowned composer Mary D. Watkins, a Black woman,” said the opera’s publicist, Nina Flowers, in response to the criticism.

Watkins gave her own statement.

“It is an insult to me as a Black woman and to the company members who are African American,” she said.

Members of the company believe Bishop’s statements minimize the hard work of Watkins and ignore the efforts of all those involved since the start of the opera’s development in 2013.

For example, Coss views that the main focus of the opera is the story of strength and greatness of ordinary people  such as Till-Mobley.

“The courage of Mamie Till, the Wright family, young Willie Reed and his family, and others to testify in an armed Klan courtroom, under death threats, broke the Delta code” Coss said.

According to the playwright, Roanne Taylor is not a white savior but rather a coward and a bystander symbolic of “white silence (that) enables white supremacy.”

In response to the backlash, she issued a statement regarding what inspired her and Watkins to collaboratively create this opera.

“Mary was 15 in 1955 and I was 20– each of us deeply and differently impacted by the barbaric lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta, and the failure of justice,” Coss said.

Despite the press surrounding the situation, the petition did not garner the required 15,000 signatures before the premier.

The opera was performed on March 23 and 24 by the Harlem Chamber Players and Opera Noire International to mixed reviews, the polarized arguments before the opera’s premiere echoed in them.