Kander: dwb at Urban Arias in DC

On April 30, 2021, UrbanArias presents the digital premiere of its film adaptation of Susan Kander’s chamber opera dwb (driving while black), featuring soprano Karen Slack joined by cellist Rosanna Butterfield and percussionist Eric Plewinski. Kander’s 45-minute, one-woman monodrama was written in collaboration with librettist and soprano Roberta Gumbel. Gumbel — along with New Morse Code ensemble — premiered the work in fall 2018 at the Lawrence Arts Center in Kansas, directed by Chip Miller. UrbanArias’ new media adaptation features choreography and direction by A’Keen Brand. To view the online screening, click here.

Karen Slack, soprano

The opera’s subject is timely. “dwb came about,” Kander shares “back in 2017 when I suddenly had three friends/colleagues on one faculty. Roberta had sung a lot of my music over the years, but this was a chance to start something from scratch together. We threw around several possible subjects, but dwb kept rising to the top in my own mind. I have sons, but not only are they white, they grew up in New York so I never had to worry about them driving as teenagers. Roberta had been sharing with me her concerns about her son coming of age to begin driving…[and Roberta], like other African-American parents, has worries I will never have about her son being profiled or targeted by police…I think it took a huge amount of courage on her part, but we settled on dwb.

Kander then needed a libretto for the work, which was originally conceived as a song cycle, but quickly morphed into a short, one-woman monodrama. Kander had previously written her own texts to earlier operas; however, she and Gumbel both knew that Gumbel had to write the libretto even though Gumbel had never done so before. “The story is mine,” Gumbel explains, “with other pieces thrown in. [Set in a car,] a mother begins her journey with the baby in back in a child-safety seat. When he’s old enough, he gets to ride up front. This is how time is marked. Eventually I teach him to drive. The narrative all leads up to, ‘How will I gather the courage to give him the keys to the car?’”

UrbanArias’ founder and artistic director Robert Wood comments. “UrbanArias is delighted to present a new film adaptation of Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel’s dwb (driving while black). We knew we wanted to produce this important work, but the pandemic forced us to pivot to digital offerings. As we contemplated what that might look like, we were interested in creating a piece of art that belongs in its medium—in this case, film. Taking inspiration from diverse genres (music video, staged opera performances, dance), we explored the piece as a journey inside the Mother’s mind. Are we seeing memories or dreams? Is this an abstract narration of past events, or fears and hopes for the future? Is any of it real? We hope that the film will help people feel what it means to not only drive, but live, while Black.”