There are stories that become part of the fabric of American culture, told, retold and reimagined many times over, like West Side Story, Porgy and Bess, and A Raisin in the Sun. In recent years, a number of storytellers have attempted to fold police shootings of black people into works that are similarly grand and timeless.
Few of those efforts have been so memorable, so unshakable, that they ascend to something more. Blue, a new opera that just had its world premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, may be the exception.
The opera, by composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson, is a tragedy built on big themes: familial loyalty, race and regret. Blue tells the story of a black couple in Harlem and the death of their only son, who, as a teen, is shot and killed by a police officer (whose race is not specified). What’s more devastating is that the teen’s father is a police officer too. One of his colleagues killed his son.
Police violence provides a rich area for opera and theater in general. The tragedy of innocence and hope interrupted by untimely, unprovoked death works in the same way that consumption provides a common vehicle for life cut short in La Traviata, La Bohème and Les Contes D’Hoffman.
What makes Blue stand out is that it demands a place in the American operatic canon. Thompson and Tesori skillfully marry the traditions of opera with modern storytelling to create new archetypes, which is underscored by Thompson’s decision to keep his characters nameless. They are simply identified as The Father, The Mother and The Reverend, with supporting roles played by Three Girlfriends and Three Police Officer Buddies.
The show opens with The Mother (mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter) cupping her pregnant belly and chatting with her Three Girlfriends. She’s married a cop, much to their horror, and is about to give birth to a baby boy.
Her friends’ advice is morbid. They counsel her to have an abortion and try again for a girl. America, they say, is no place to safely raise a black boy. If she insists on having the kid, maybe raise him in China, where he won’t be seen as a threat before he even hits his 10th birthday.
But The Mother and The Father (bass baritone Kenneth Kellogg) carry on, making a home in Harlem for their little boy, who quickly grows into a teen questioning how and why he ended up with a cop for a father.
Tesori’s orchestrations hum with the aural signatures of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, two composers who shaped the sound of Americana. But Tesori also uses Blue to expand definitions of the quintessential American sound by including a few bars from Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” in a scene where The Son (tenor Aaron Crouch) is arguing with The Father. The Son provides yet another variation on Bigger Thomas, updated for 2019. This time, he’s a middle-class skater punk. Costume designer Jessica Jahn has kitted The Son in the Gen Z aesthetic of the newly woke: a plaid shirt, a Thrasher hoodie, ripped jeans, DC sneakers and, most notably, a half-shorn head topped with dreadlocks à la Erik Killmonger.
Blue centers on one big conflict. In The Son’s bedroom, The Father and his teenage progeny engage in a well-worn argument. The Son, hyperaware of how race colors the way he is perceived in the world, is a simmering cauldron of anger and resentment directed toward his cop father. He can’t understand why his father would choose to earn a living by contributing to the mass incarceration system that disproportionately targets black and brown people.
Sings The Son:
That’s exactly what I am.
Black men brought into this world as white people’s fodder. For labor and for sport.
Go so far but no further.
But we keep multiplying and climbing and advancing. Now they can’t get rid of us fast enough.
The Father has more immediate concerns: providing for his family, and keeping his son safe. He tells him:
That’s what you’re supposed to do.
Look at you.
Dressed like somebody’s damn Gypsy.
Get a haircut, pull up your pants, remove the jewelry.
Take off the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie.
The generational divide between parent and son over race and respectability, especially with regard to police violence, is a common trope at this point. Thematically, Blue has a lot in common with the Broadway play American Son and the third season of Queen Sugar, which both feature teen boys pushing back against the way their parents choose to navigate race and prejudice in America. Jamal, the never-seen son in American Son, and Micah West (Nicholas L. Ashe) hate the politics of respectability and actively rebel against them.
They reject their parents’ accommodationist tactics for dealing with white supremacy. In American Son, it’s Jamal’s father, Scott (Steven Pasquale), who has faith in the American judicial system. In the most recent season of Queen Sugar, Micah finds himself at odds with his mother, Charley (Dawn Lyen-Gardner), who wants to repair a broken system from within. Micah, by contrast, wants to set the whole system ablaze.
In all three stories, the parents must face the fact that they are helpless when it comes to protecting their sons from state violence. Their sons see their attempts as capitulations to white supremacy. Normal family squabbles, like the emotional distance between a stoic, conservatively masculine father and his radical son, get complicated and even more hurtful.
In Blue, The Son sings:
If you struck me
or put your arms around me …
Just once …
I’d begin to know there was a human being inside that blue clown suit — who imagines he’s my father.
A black man.
Kellogg, Crouch and Hunter make for a powerful trio of voices, and when Hunter disappears for nearly a third of the opera, it’s impossible not to wonder if Thompson forgot about her. The argument between The Father and The Son is momentous, and The Mother’s absence prompts a question: What is her role when it comes to the ideological rift between the two most important people in her life? The stage goes black with The Father embracing his son as he stews with teenage rancor. When the lights come back up after intermission, The Son is dead and The Father is sitting with The Reverend (Gordon Hawkins), trying to process the guilty ache his son’s homicide has created.
But Thompson, who also directs the production, is not forgetful, merely strategic. A flashback in the third act hinges on The Mother’s role as nurturer, caregiver and peacekeeper. It also takes a largely predictable plot someplace devastating. Thompson fashions The Mother, The Father and The Son into a new black Everyfamily. Their pain can be easily projected onto so many parents, whom we come to know when the worst moments of their lives become hashtags and images of their slain children echo across the internet.
The story of Blue crystalizes a horrifying event, the killing of an unarmed black child and the extinguishing of hope and innocence, while its score never lets its audience forget that this, too, is part of the American tradition.