Reimagined for Streaming, dwb (Driving While Black) Examines Black Motherhood

Mamie Till altered history by insisting that the world see her murdered child. We are accustomed, and thus numb, to the African-American mothers who continue to grieve in public and call for justice. dwb (Driving While Black) presents the years of taut anxiety and legitimate fear that a parent of color endures before their child’s harassment or death, keeping a tight 45-minute focus on Black motherhood and that cherished American mythology of the open road. Four wheels and freedom is not equally available to all Americans, perhaps most poignantly in the spaces of long prairie road where this music-theater piece was born. 

dwb premiered at the Kansas Lawrence Arts Center and presented two performances in Kansas City, MO the following year. One show was to a primarily white audience to whom the content might be new; one was to a primarily Black audience who already knew. For composer Susan Kander, who is white, and librettist and soprano Roberta Gumbel, who is Black, their shared experience growing up in Kansas City and experiencing disparity in arts access motivated additional effort to ensure all communities encountered the work.

Roberta Gumbel in dwb (Driving While Black)--Screenshot courtesy of BPAC

Roberta Gumbel in dwb (Driving While Black)–Screenshot courtesy of BPAC

dwb was to have its New York City premiere co-presented by Baruch Performing Arts Center and Opera Omaha in March 2020. It was then re-imagined for streaming presentation on October 23-29, 2020 and introduced by Erica Richardson, a scholar of Black studies and literary studies and Assistant Professor of English at Baruch College. Featuring Gumbel and chamber duo New Morse Code, the sung monologue alternates between brief Bulletins, describing infamous examples of police brutality from a distance, and fragmentary Motherhood scenes. 

Kander usually writes her own librettos, but it is appropriate that she abandoned that habit for dwb, allowing Gumbel–who sings the Mother role for African-American female soprano or mezzoas dictated by the score–to voice it all. Gumbel’s libretto is fragmentary if weighty, and Kander supports it with a surprising buoyancy. The constant and varied vibraphone adds whimsy, play, and sonic presence of the Son, allowing Gubmel to float through the partial consciousness of daily life and avoid melodrama.

Susan Kander--Photo by Russ Rowland

Susan Kander–Photo by Russ Rowland

Nothing is overdone: no program notes, minimal information in the YouTube description, no fateful episodes in the car, no conflicts between Mother and police. Director Chip Miller provided Gumbel a bare raised platform and four black chairs often hidden in shadow. Opposite her stark set, New Morse Code filled their space with the metals, woods, and varied shapes of percussion and cello. Miller’s subtle lighting and a shifting blue, purple, red, orange, and deep green velvet backdrop added dimension and even rhythm when the colors changed faster. Gumbel sings us through admiring a newborn in the carseat; picking up from elementary school; a moment of respite alone in the car; teaching a teenager how to drive; consistent news flashes proving there is no right place or time to be while Black. 

The cinematic attention given to cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello by Four/Ten Media was beautiful. dwb, after all, was written for them and Gumbel. Miller’s luxurious shadows and tight frames transformed the instruments into set, and elevated Collins and Compitello as dramatic agents. We saw a pink balloon used as delightful percussion, deflating against plush blue velvet; white paper shaken in the air against a dark backdrop. Another pink balloon deflated to the floor as Mother does the same. One scene used almost entirely human body percussion, a clapping duet with occasional plucked cello and carefully choreographed hand shapes.

New Morse Code in dwb (Driving While Black)--Screenshot courtesy of BPAC

New Morse Code in dwb (Driving While Black)–Screenshot courtesy of BPAC

It is a tragic failed system that labels “not murdered” as a parenting success, and parental suffering should not be the impetus for humane treatment of children. Arriving at the same time as Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights by Gretchen Sorin and the PBS film of the same name, dwb issues a broad invitation to ask quiet incisive questions, alleviate suffering, and honor daily hope. The tight focus of Mother’s experience dissolves into the universal experience of bonded caretaking, a nagging familiarity that does not dispel after the piece. This is honest work finding its moment, and it should find a varied audience in years to come. 


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