CUNY student petitions to cancel opera written by white playwright

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A petition to cancel a City University of New York (CUNY) school production of an opera about Emmett Till written by a white woman gained steam Saturday.

More than 11,000 people had signed the appeal to close the curtains on “Emmett Till, A New American Opera” at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theatre next week, agreeing with a student who said the show was about the librettist Clare Coss’ “white guilt.”

“Emmett Till was 14 when he was lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. His brutal murder became a rallying cry in the civil rights movement.

The play, written by Coss and composed by Mary D. Watkins, who is black, “explores themes of social justice, the flaws within the justice system, white silence and allyship, racial inequality and the complexities of the human experience,” according to its synopsis.

Petition author Mya Bishop alleged the opera frames the tragedy through the eyes of a “fictional progressive white woman,” a teacher in the production.”

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

A representative for Coss and Watkins said Bishop’s assertion that the story centers around the teacher is incorrect, saying the plot actually focuses around Till’s activist mother, Mamie Till-Mobley.

The white teacher “represents the concepts of white silence and white supremacy,” Nina Flowers said 

Coss, 86, issued her own statement about what inspired her and Watkins to collaborate 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 wrote.

Watkins also slammed the petitioner and the thousands who signed on in a statement.

“It is an insult to me as a Black woman and to the company members who are African-American,” she wrote.

When reached for comment, a CUNY spokesperson said the opera was an “outside production” and declined to comment.

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