Red, Black, and Blue: An American Portrait at Seattle Opera
The gorgeous new opera Blue presents a portrait of a middle-class Black family and their chosen families, galvanized by a joy and a tragedy. The West Coast premiere runs through March 12.
Keep the faith
Keep it yourself … What I need from you is the fire this time
— Exchange between The Reverend and The Father, in Blue
When James Baldwin wrote of the fire next time, he wrote of the immense reckoning to come, in the form of fire from heaven, if America did not turn away from its sins against Black people.
When The Father here calls upon The Reverend to bring the fire this time, it’s that same righteous reckoning he’s seeking. Whether from the skies or his service weapon, someone will pay for the death of his son.
In Blue, a 2019 opera making its West Coast premiere, librettist Tazewell Thompson and composer Jeanine Tesori set out to tell a story of a Black family who joyously and fearfully gives birth to a son, and the communities that surround them as they cherish, and then lose, that son.
Blue opens boldly from the start, with a cacophony from the orchestra and a disconnect on stage: a Black man, bomber jacket on and hood up, walks, is stopped by a cop; walks, is stopped by a second cop; walks, is stopped by a third cop; walks … into a locker room. Takes off his sneakers, hoodie, and jeans, and dons his uniform, spit-shined shoes, a badge and a gun.
That’s The Father — none of the characters are given names — the upstanding, proud, military background, “officer of the law” (as he insists over The Son’s preferred dismissive “cop”). He’s a Black man living in Harlem who’s viewed alternately as protector of society and a threat to it.
It’s in this dichotomy that much of Blue operates. And it’s against this understanding that The Father tries to instill respect for law and order in his son, then has his own commitments — to family, to work, to order, to faith — devastated completely when one of his own force shoots and kills his only child, the son he has held so dear even in his days of teenage rebellion.
The story is not about The Son’s death, not exactly. His death is never shown; nor is his killer. There is no body shown, no gunshots heard, except perhaps the drumbeats that could just as easily symbolize the thunder of a spiritual storm as the earth opens up amidst the family’s turmoil.
Instead, this is a story about the before and after. The joy at a new arrival. The bond between family and those who surround them. The grappling, the desire for vengeance, the begging for answers from an unjust God.
The well-paced, two-act opera splits its time evenly between both eras, the before and after; I’ll call them The Arrival (pregnancy, birth, and The Son’s later teenage years) and The Reckoning (a few days, perhaps, in the immediate aftermath of The Son’s violent death). While some details remain a mystery until the closing scenes, the fact of The Son’s death, at the hands of his father’s colleague, is always a known. So there’s always a lingering bit of dread from the start, in anticipation of what’s to come.
The beauty and the tension lie not in suspense, but in the rich, layered storytelling. Much of the before circles through to the after, whether it’s in The Father cradling The Son, The Mother’s friends lecturing her arow and then forming a bulwark around her, or an intimate picture of the family’s home life raising a teenager.
Interestingly, where we imagine there might be other family members, they don’t come into play. Instead, it’s their other communities — the “brotherhood” on the force, the football-watching buddies, The Girlfriends, The Reverend, The Nurse — who serve as extended family. In those ways, the drama is sharper, more focused; The Father’s fellow officers serving as his family, for example, sharpens the lines of the force as his brotherhood even as it’s his antagonist.
The story is not without its limitations. While The Mother has her own cadre (The Girlfriends) surrounding her and ample stage and singing time, the richest parts of the story are about Black men and masculinity; the women, largely without separately defined trajectories, expound mostly in response to the men and boys — celebrating The Husband, fearing for The Son.
I’d love to see an opera centering, by, and about Black women. (Who’s in charge of these things?)
But in Blue, by establishing a perspective and sticking to it, Thompson creates a tight, focused work that allows it to dig in deep. That perspective, primarily, is a Black man in America who confronts his precarious position as a Black officer; both a lawman and a “moving target”. In one subtle, compelling moment, The Father ponders social status and Black masculinity through footwear, wondering aloud, “How many shoes do I have to shine before I’m seen as a man?”; it’s hard not to think back to his own glistening shoes, his status falling away just as soon as he steps out of his Navy uniform or police blues.
The cast, many of whom are returning to the Seattle Opera stage, put on a mighty performance: strong voices that combine well together, and heartfelt portrayals that tell a convincing story. Kenneth Kellogg (The Father), Briana Hunter (The Mother), and Joshua Stewart (The Son) form the family core. The Girlfriends (Ariana Wehr, Ellaina Lewis, and Cheryse McLeod Lewis) and The Policemen (Camron Gray, Korland Simmons, and Joshua Conyers) form their support structure and frame their communities. The Nurse (Wehr also) and The Reverend (Gordon Hawkins) drive important events in respective acts, and have some of the biggest vocal moments.
The orchestra (conducted by Viswa Subbaraman) and Tesori’s composition added drama in the right spots, and drew from a variety of musical styles. Much of the design traveled with the production, but it lends a beautiful staging. Simple, moody lighting (designed by Robert Wierzel and Eric Norbury) washes over a stark white backdrop; the set (designed by Donald Eastman) is easily maneuvered, effective, and nice to look at; and the costumes (designed by Jessica Jahn) provide clearly defined roles.
In all, Seattle Opera’s staging gives Blue‘s story exactly the presentation it demands: engrossing, challenging, and beautiful.
Naomi André, PhD, is a professor at the University of Michigan, an expert on opera (with emphases on gender, voice, and race), and the Scholar in Residence at Seattle Opera. A series of her articles on Black Opera appears on the Seattle Opera blog: “Looking Back: A Historical Perspective” (published in the program for La bohème), “The Golden Age” (published with Blue), and a speculation on the future (forthcoming, with The Marriage of Figaro). A video interview with André on the Opera’s YouTube channel provides an excellent overview of the history of Blue and contextualizes the work in an approachable, accessible way. It’s an enjoyable and informative watch.
When You Go
Be sure to check out the photo exhibition in the lobby of McCaw Hall, with portraits by acclaimed photographer Michael B. Maine. The exhibition was created just for Blue, and will be on display throughout its run.
Said Maine in an accompanying artist statement, “I feel a strong responsibility to understand and appreciate that every piece I produce influences perceptions, beliefs, and actions — even if I am the only person who experiences the work.”
Usually I’m not thrilled when writer-directors, who may be wonderfully skilled in both, attempt to do both at the same time (i.e., direct their own work). From an audience member perspective, it often makes the viewing experience much smoother if there’s a mediator who really understands the work but is also outside of it; a skilled translator, bridging the writer’s intent to my receptors. Here, librettist Tazewell Thompson, an experienced stage director who did direct his own work here in Blue, proves it can be done — and done with exceptional clarity. But it’s a tough hill to climb for anyone seeking to do double-duty as well as Thompson accomplished here.
I was astonished to learn, from a program essay serving as the writer/director’s note (first published in the New York Times), that this was Thompson’s first time writing an opera; and that he received the opportunity by asking the simple, courageous, and so often overlooked question, “Why not me?” — and then by proving himself, as his draft scenes for what would become this outstanding opera unfolded.
Following that 2019 premiere of Blue with the Glimmerglass Festival, Thompson has received prestigious awards and another commission for a new opera. I hope Blue‘s success and Thompson’s story encourage other artists, not yet “proven” in a specific role or a given medium, to ask, Why not me? — and for prestigious arts organizations to respond in kind.
Blue runs through 3/12 at Seattle Opera (in McCaw Hall, Seattle Center/Mercer side). Tickets $42-$206, available here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available by most of them. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility note: Seattle Opera offers discount tickets to certain groups of people, including employees in certain industries and low-income attendees; see policies and info here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.