dwb (driving while black)
“Driving while black”
One is the title of the opera by Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel that we are presenting at the end of the month. The other is a phrase Black Americans have used for years to encapsulate the injustice, fear, and danger they encounter on a regular basis while simply going about their lives.
Susan and Roberta wrote the piece in 2015, inspired by their conversations surrounding their own sons’ coming of driving age and by the general awareness of Black parents of what it means to put their child behind the wheel of a car. They were making an artistic and political statement by writing the opera on this subject.
UrbanArias Founder and Artistic Director Bob Wood programmed dwb into the 2020-2021 season because it is an excellent work which tells a story of today’s America (and, of course, it is short and new). He was making an artistic and political statement by including the work in our season.
Soprano Karen Slack and filmmakers Du’Bois and Camry A’Keen were making artistic and political statements by signing on to star in and create a film version of the opera.
All these subtle political statements happened before Black Lives Matter exploded in mid-2020, becoming a global movement fueled by the collective outrage surrounding the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. Artists and companies around the country and around the world came forward with written statements speaking out against the unjust fears our Black and Brown colleagues and friends face daily.
And now, just this week, we have seen two more horrific examples of this fear, the fear of Driving While Black, come to life. Army 2nd Lieutenant Caron Nazario, pepper-sprayed after being pulled over in his new car, and Daunte Wright, killed when a police officer used her gun instead of her taser.
As the director of a company presenting an opera entitled dwb (driving while black) in this moment, I am keenly aware of the line we are walking between art and politics. Toni Morrison once said “All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”
As we present this beautiful film, we are saying loudly and clearly that we do not love the status quo. We do not love seeing yet another “beautiful brown boy,” as The Mother in dwb calls her son, killed in an act of senseless violence. We do not love a system which routinely thwarts justice by allowing perpetrators to go largely unpunished while the lives of innocent people are destroyed.
Art is political, one way or another. We are choosing to be political on the side of change.