12,000 students sign petition to cancel Emmett Till opera written by white woman, black composer sounds off

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(Video Credit: NBC New York)

Over 12,000 students at the City University of New York have signed a petition seeking to cancel an Emmitt Till opera written by a female white playwright and a female black composer because of the author’s alleged “white guilt.”

Mya Bishop, who is a John Jay College of Criminal Justice student, started the Change.org petition to stop the “Emmett Till, A New American Opera” performance set to take place in the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre, according to the Daily Mail.

Detractors of the opera claim it is all about playwright Clare Coss’ “white guilt” instead of the killing of Emmett Till, who was 14 at the time, for allegedly flirting with a white woman. He was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for it.

Mary D. Watkins is the black female composer of the opera. The synopsis of the show says that it “explores themes of social justice, the flaws within the justice system, white silence and allyship, racial inequality, and the complexities of the human experience.”

Watkins was infuriated by the petition, claiming it was “an insult to me as a black woman and to the company members who are African-American.”

Bishop is asserting that Coss is presenting the production’s real-life events through the lens of a “fictional progressive white woman.”

“Clare Coss has creatively centered her white guilt by using this show to make the racially motivated brutal torture and murder of a 14-year-old child about her white self and her white feelings,” the petition charges.

“White perspectives should not be centered in the stories of lynched black children,” said 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.”

Nina Flowers, who is a representative for both Coss and Watkins, stated that the plot actually revolves around Mamie Till-Mobley, Till’s mother.

The fictional white teacher “represents the concepts of white silence and white supremacy,” she told the New York Post.

Coss is 87 and claims to have been personally affected by Till’s death in 1955. She was a junior at Louisiana State University at the time. She has worked with Watkins for eight years on the 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,” she said in a statement. “To illuminate lifelong heartfelt pain—Mary through her profound music, me through words—our dual partnership advanced and expanded with the artists who joined us along the way. To work with Mary Watkins is a privilege.”

“It is very disturbing that people are condemning this piece without having seen or heard it,” Watkins commented.

“They have jumped on the fact that the playwright is white and assumed all kinds of things about the content of the show. Even though there are many artists of color involved in this project, the critics are assuming that we have had no impact on the final shape of the piece and that the playwright has somehow forced all of us to tell her story,” she said, referring to those who signed the petition.

The university promotes itself as a “social justice school.” Its website says that its community is comprised of “fierce advocates for justice.”

Black tenor Robert Mack is also being criticized for his part in the opera. The petition claims his persona “exacerbates the adultification of black children which has historically led to their brutalization.”


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