Emmett Till

New Emmett Till Opera Faces Backlash for Being Centered Around Creator's ‘White Guilt'

The show focuses on Till’s mother and a fictional character the creator said is “a white woman who represents the people who care, but are silent” — but opponents say the creator is "more concerned with showing the audience that 'not all white people are bad'"

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Two days before the world premiere of a new opera in New York City, many are fighting to stop it from ever taking the stage — both because of the subject matter, and because of the writer.

Rehearsals are underway inside the theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, for a performance about justice. The story, told through opera, centers around 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

"Opera hopefully will draw out the emotion. It’s going to reach the heart," said composer Mary D. Watkins.

Watkins worked with librettist Clare Coss for eight years to create the opera. The pair come from a powerful perspective: Coss was a college student at the time of Till’s death, and Watkins was also a teenager at the time.

“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.”

The central figures in the show are Till’s mother and a fictional character created by Coss, who she said is “a white woman who represents the people who care, but are silent.”

"And so her arc goes from denial, to taking a step to fighting for justice," Coss said. "To bridge the silence with activism."

Watkins said she hopes the takeaway for the audience is "that we need each other and that we need to work together."

The brutal murder of Emmett Till, a Black teenager from Chicago, and the acquittal of the two white men who killed him, was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. But almost as fast as Emmett’s name became known around the world, it began to fade. How did it happen? How could people forget the torture of a 14-year-old boy? Investigative journalist Marion Brooks details the events surrounding the case to unveil the context behind the lost story of Emmett Till.

But the production, with two sold out shows March 23 and 24, is drawing criticism. An online petition is urging the show be canceled, saying Coss centered the play around her "white guilt...her white self and her white feelings" and that she is "more concerned with showing the audience that 'not all white people are bad' than she is with the ongoing fight for racial justice."

More than 12,000 people have signed the online petition.

"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."

Watkins said she’s proud to work with Coss on this production.

"I think it’s very interesting and important that it is a white woman and a Black woman, and we’re pretty much in the same age group. We both were alive when this happened and we’ve seen a lot," she said.

"Emmett Till, A New American Opera," will be presented at the Gerald Lynch Theater.

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