5 Questions to Samantha Rose Williams (singer and creative producer, “American Patriots”)

Samantha Rose Williams is the creative producer of American Patriots, a new song-cycle that probes American identity. A mezzo-soprano and producer from New Haven, CT, Williams has workshopped the song-cycle with the Salina Symphony, Virginia Theological Seminary, and as part of Renegade Opera’s Artist in Conversation Festival.

Created in the tradition of verbatim theatre – a form of devised documentary theatre in which performers reproduce word-for-word testimonies of a community’s specific lived experiences – the songs’ texts are drawn from interviews with a diverse group of Americans whose identities span race, indigeneity, immigration status, and class, and whose multifarious beliefs about the American dream complicate the ideal.

Fittingly for a piece about the United States, many of American Patriots‘ songs combine elements of both classical music and jazz, and the style and subject matter of the songs traverse the breadth of American experience. The provocative text of “I’m Not BIPOC” becomes a perfectly squeamish, funny piece of musical theatre in the hands of composer Yaniv Segal and soprano Annie Sherman. In the song, a white actress declares that America does not have a “race problem,” and in a paroxysm of cognitive dissonance, that, “the whites are the ones being oppressed.”

By contrast, “Homecoming,” with music by Regina Harris Baiocchi, highlights the painful discord of a Black Navy veteran returning home to a United States wracked by racial violence. And “Could Have Been Me,” also by Segal, is a first-person account from an undocumented immigrant crossing the southern border from Mexico into the United States.

American Patriots features music by Baiocchi and Segal, as well as Gala Flagello, Danielle Jagelski, and Marc LeMay. It has been performed by Williams alongside Sherman and baritones Robert Wesley Mason and Evan Korbut, and in May, Williams will perform a solo version of American Patriots as part of Stanford University’s Shenson Recital Series.

American Patriots -- Photo by Rashid Mahdi

American Patriots — Photo by Rashid Mahdi

You’ve made a commitment to “intentional storytelling” with American Patriots. How do you define “intentional storytelling,” and why is it important to you and to the creation of this work?

Intentional Storytelling is a creative methodology I created to mitigate some of the disconnect between intent and impact when it comes to telling stories other than our own. At its simplest, Intentional Storytelling is a commitment as artists to collaborating with the people whose stories we’re telling (rather than extracting), and giving them agency throughout the creative process to present themselves and their lived experiences in ways that feel authentic to them.

I believe the fundamental question of “what it means to tell someone else’s story, and what responsibility (if any) do we have (and to whom)?” is critical in art making. I hope every artist is willing to acknowledge the social responsibility of the arts and ask themselves how they address it in their work. As a Black artist, questions of storytelling and representation have shaped my career in the arts. It’s personal for me. I’ve watched closely over the past few years as our society became more diverse and sought more accountability from artists who in the process of storytelling caused harm and/or got caught in scandal (from Sia’s movie Music, to Big Mouth’s Missy casting controversy, to the Hamilton casting call controversy).

I’m intimately aware of how the art industry can perpetuate extractive practices – particularly extracting cultural capital from marginalized communities in service of great art. I’ve been a part of well-meaning projects that appropriated BIPOC stories for profit, perpetuated harmful caricatures and representations of marginalized communities, and attempted to hide behind tokenized team members, who had little say in the development of the work. I’m also an artist and creator who believes in the power of stories to transcend differences and connect us all to our larger humanity. I love performance, and acting and always say that I didn’t go into the arts to only portray 29-year-old Black women. I’m in the arts because I’m in love with the magic that happens when we step into someone else’s shoes and our own insights and experiences meld with the character.

I find myself embodying the tension between a need to advocate for caution, intentionality, accountability, and responsibility when it comes to portraying stories other than our own, particularly those of marginalized identities, AND a deep desire to protect space for artists and creators to be able to do what they do – to storytell, to interpret, to create, to transcend.

This culminated in Intentional Storytelling. In the development of American Patriots, I centered a system of checks and balances ensuring that we collaborated with each community rather than extracting: paying interviewees for their time, having each interviewee approve or veto the final song, allowing each interviewee to choose their own level of credit or anonymity in the project, prioritizing hiring composers from each identity to set the songs from that experience, and ensuring that composers and interviewees get royalties for their work with every performance.

As our society becomes increasingly diverse and as audiences demand more accountability, American Patriots believes that the process is equally important to the product when it comes to the representation of marginalized communities.

What surprised you most about what people told you during your extensive interviews in 2020?

I was most surprised by the percentage of people who told me they didn’t vote. They would pour out their stories and share all sorts of perspectives that needed to be heard, and then so many of them would tell me that they didn’t think their vote mattered. I knew voter apathy was a huge thing, but it was eye-opening nonetheless to see how prevalent it was, particularly in this group of people I think it’s so important for us to hear more of.

When creating the libretto, how did you decide what to include from the interviews and what to leave out?

My goal was to keep the essence of each person’s point – the point they were trying to make and their personal rhetorical style. The rules I created for myself and the composers were that we couldn’t add any words, we could cut things that didn’t change the essence of what was being said, we could reorder lines, and we could repeat a word or line for emphasis.

The decision not to add any words at all meant that I had to pick sections where an interviewee made their point clearly and then I felt like my work was to trim so that the message was clear. When we speak and when we’re being interviewed we’re discovering what we think while we talk. We begin sentences we don’t finish, we say things and then say “that’s not right,” we launch into non-sequiturs and tell anecdotes. I tried to distill the point and emphasize the way in which the interviewee made their point- their personal rhetorical devices as succinctly as possible.

The song “Honor” by Marc LeMay comes from an interview I did with Jamie Green. I focused on a section where she was saying “I could care less about kneeling during the national anthem as long as you aren’t kneeling on somebody’s neck” and the most striking thing about her rhetorical style to me was how self-critical she was of herself at the beginning of the interview. How unsure she was – all the stops and starts; the “umms,” “huhs,” and the “this is really hard’s.” But how she said something incredibly profound in between all those interjections and self-critiques. So I’d cut away the text that pulled away from that. Keeping the “ohh, umm, hmms” she says often to keep that self-critique and doubt, highlighting her main point, but choosing not to include things like the non-sequitur about her kid in that song.

I find myself embodying the tension between a need to advocate for caution, intentionality, accountability, and responsibility when it comes to portraying stories other than our own, particularly those of marginalized identities, AND a deep desire to protect space for artists and creators to be able to do what they do – to storytell, to interpret, to create, to transcend.

Based on what you’ve learned through this project, how do you think American identity converges and conflicts with American patriotism in the contemporary United States?

Through the work of developing this show my thoughts on the relationship between American identity and American patriotism have grown. When I started this project in 2020 I was trying to answer some fairly existential questions: what does it mean to be American, what does it mean to be a patriot, who is this country for, is there something intrinsically American that we can all identify with in the midst of all the divisiveness. As the interviewer, I got to encourage other people to take a stab at these massive questions and didn’t have to answer them for myself. When I did my first recital presentation of this project at the University of Michigan, Professor Martin Katz raised his hand during the Q&A at the end and asked me if I was a patriot. I realized I’d managed to interview 50 people, ask them that very same question, and hadn’t come up with an answer for myself.

Having spent so much time with this show I can now say that I do identify as a patriot, that this country is my home and I’m committed to working for America to more fully embody its ideals. American identity converges, conflicts, deepens, and complicates American patriotism in so many ways. America is unique, it is theoretically united by an ideal rather than ethnicity or religion like other countries. And because America is a melting pot and not a single person that I interviewed defined any of the American ideals the same as another person, American identity and relatedly our concepts of American patriotism are as varied and complicated as each of us. I think the beautiful and often hypocritical relationship between American identity and American patriotism can only be understood when we look at each of the threads that make the tapestry of our country. To really understand what I think, you have to come see the show.

Samantha Rose Williams in American Patriots -- Photo by Rashid Mahdi

Samantha Rose Williams in American Patriots — Photo by Rashid Mahdi

As a performer, how does it feel to bring these recorded interviews to life in a new way, where the music can elevate or emphasize (whether intentionally or not) certain specific, candid thoughts of real people you know?

It makes me feel incredibly lucky to be able to do what I love in a way that feels genuinely meaningful and relevant. Training in classical music often felt isolating. I grew up learning to sing at a historically Black church, Alfred Street Baptist Church, where the music-making was inextricable from community. Training in Western classical music was an incredible opportunity and blessing, but was also full of hours alone in a practice room, text work in a language that my family and friends couldn’t understand, singing news reports of civil rights violations, and feeling limited in what I could do because of my studies.

Taking all the education and training I’ve had and using it to create art that comes from and is for community feels like I’ve come into my own. I am so proud that I get to elevate the words of normal Americans bringing their thoughts, experiences, and lived experiences in their own words to a larger stage.


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