A casual talk between two old friends––one Black, one white––was the genesis for the new chamber opera, “dwb (driving while Black),” now distributed on CD by Albany Records. “dwb (driving while Black)” chronicles the experiences of a Black mother with her son, from his infancy to the time he is ready to drive and she must confront all that means.
One of the pair was Roberta Gumbel, a lauded soprano with an extensive career in opera as a singer and instructor. She performed in the Broadway productions of “Showboat,” “Ragtime,” “Baz Luhrmann’s La Boheme” and “In My Life.” Gumbel has also been a frequent soloist with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
States Gumbel of the fateful conversation with white composer Susan Kander: “She and I are very good friends and we were sitting and talking about my son learning to drive. I talked about some of the fears I had as a Black mother and she was just appalled.”
A 2018 Bureau of Justice report revealed that, “Black residents were more likely to be stopped by police than white or Hispanic residents, both in traffic stops and street stops.” In addition, the report found, “When police initiated an interaction, they were twice as likely to threaten or use force against Black and Hispanic residents than white residents.”
We all know the fatal outcomes of many cases where Black men have been stopped by police; George Floyd, Philando Castile, Daunte Wright just the latest among them.
Stated Kander in a previous interview, “I was already sympathetic to her having a teenage driver, but the added anxiety of her son driving while Black––I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
A few months later, Kander concluded that her next opera should be about this subject. Due to a string of high-profile murders of Black men by police officers during traffic stops, it was front and center in the news. Gumbel was a bit skeptical that typical opera audiences would be receptive. States Gumbel, “Susan said, ‘Well, this is life. You’re a classical musician and this is part of your world, why shouldn’t it be part of the audience’s world?”
Then there was the problem of who would write the libretto. “I said, ‘Nobody is going to want to hear your take on what Black mothers go through.’” Kander already had a list of librettists she wanted to approach for the project. However, it turned out they all were booked. Gumbel was taken aback yet again when Kander later called her and said she should write the libretto. “I don’t write,” replied Gumbel, essentially rhetorically though she ultimately relented.
Gumbel was pleasantly surprised as she wrote. “So much of it was based on things that actually happened the process itself was just putting them in a condensed form. It was challenging but it wasn’t hard.”
In “dwb,” there are two stories being told simultaneously; the personal one of the main character played by Gumbel, full quotidian interactions with her son from birth to adolescence. She worries about car seats and grades and trips to the ice cream shop.
Then there are the baleful events on the margins of her personal existence that form the second narrative; children thought a danger because they sport hoodies, Black men murdered by police for no apparent reason. “I tell the story about how those things add up to a lot of bias and profiling and the fear that as a mother, I know those things will eventually happen to my child because of the way he looks.”
The music in “dwb” is taut and chilling; reminiscent almost of what you might hear in a horror film. Suspense builds. The pathos in Gumbel’s voice is riveting. Adding drama are the instrumentalists, duo New Morse Code, consisting of cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello. They act as the chorus narrating and helping to move the story along. Their instrumentation is punctuated by surprising touches such as deflating balloons, beating drumsticks together, finger snaps, slapping of their bodies, and hand claps.
Gumbel deliberately imbues the story with even more nuance, underscoring the ordinariness and humanity of Black life by including a death that falls outside the realm of law enforcement. “I didn’t want to make it another Black man who was murdered,” she explains. “We live, we breathe, we die. We have normal lives. We don’t always just live and get killed.”
Though she admits she may have made a different choice if she were writing this after the George Floyd murder, Gumbel states that at the time, she consciously sought to avoid making the police the villain in the story. “We don’t name names, and we don’t bash police. With all that’s gone on with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, we might have spent more time on the police, but when we wrote it, it was about the mother’s fears.”
Gumbel sees the production as a harbinger of more diversity in classical storytelling on the stage. “I think the classical musical world is broadening,” she begins, “this helps broaden as it brings people to the theater for the subject matter.”
In addition to the audio recording, Urban Arias has released a film adaptation of “(dwb) driving while Black” starring soprano Karen Slack available via VOD thru October 31. Gumbel hopes the film version will reach yet another audience.