top of page

Black Composer, Mary D. Watkins, Responds to Controversy Over Her Opera, 'Emmett Till'

An online petition has been started to ban and cancel the black opera composer, Mary D. Watkins' new American opera, 'Emmett Till.' The premiere of 'Emmitt Till' is to take place at John Jay College Theatre, on March 23, 2022, that is, if it is not cancelled. This major undertaking of an opera by black composer Mary D. Watkins, tells the real-life story of the murder of a black teenager that spurred the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

The circulating online petition states,

"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.'"

It also states,

"If we are going to tell the story of Emmett Till, it should only be from a Black perspective, a Black writer"

Mary D. Watkins, the black composer of this opera, has publicly supported her white playwright, Clare Coss. It begs the question, "Should white women, even progressive women who are not racist, be allowed to help write an opera that involves a black story? Here, the critics are calling for a ban in part because the librettist is white and should be by a black writer, despite the composer being black. Are we getting to the point of discriminating on the basis of one's skincolor, or for their views and beliefs? Is this call for cancellation in part due to the color of Clare Coss' skin? Certainly, if there were true racism involved we would all be against it adamantly. Any good and decent person would protest a racially motivated portrayal.

We need to be careful of how much we ban and protest artists, especially when it can affect the livelihoods and careers of our fellow black artists. Mary D. Watkins, a wonderful black composer is unfortunately suffering at the hands of this petition most- she is a minority artist in the BIPOC community, who has spent years of her time and effort creating this major work. Now, she is at risk of loosing it all and her passionate work essentially being thrown in the trash due to cancel culture. As well-meaning as these protesters are, perhaps if they read the full story and handled this situation with a little more grace and foresight, they would be able to reach an understanding. Perhaps, even if they agree to disagree, they could allow a promising black composer, Mary D. Watkins, to flourish and continue to learn and grow and present her art in a meaningful way, without the protesters demanding cancellation of her work.

Sharing one's opinion is expected, but requiring cancellation of artists before fully understanding the situation at hand is horrific. These are lives at stake, livelihoods, careers, stability, and decisions which can affect whether or not these artists can put food on the table for their families should not be taken so lightly.


Both Wakins and Coss provided Playbill with statements in response to the petition, both of which are included below.

"It is very disturbing that people are condemning this piece without having seen or heard it," writes Watkins. "They have jumped on the fact that the playwright is white and assumed all kinds of things about the content of the play. Even though there are many artists of color involved in this project, the critics are assuming that we have had no impact on the final shape of the piece and that the playwright has somehow forced all of us to tell her story. It is an insult to me as a Black woman and to the company members who are African-American." -Mary D. Watkins

"Yes, the opera has a fictional white character—but it isn't about her. It is a true story that happened in our American history that could be told by anyone. Documentaries have been made, books have been written, songs have been sung by those moved to express their reaction to the true story of the brutal murder of a 14-year-old boy. The story is told from the viewpoint of one who recognizes that staying silent, instead of confronting a vicious system, allows the dehumanization of human beings to be a way of life. She comes to the realization that she and others like her have a responsibility to speak out and condemn racism." -Mary D. Watkins

"Also, I am very sad to see Clare Coss being criticized so harshly. She is an ally, a life-long activist who has worked hard for eight long years to develop this piece and to raise the funds to produce the first two performances. She has been very respectful to me and all the other artists of color on this project. It is my opinion that she has every right as an artist to tell the story of Emmett Till." -Mary D. Watkins

Coss echoed many of Watkins' thoughts in her own statement,

"Composer Mary Watkins and I have been collaborating on the creation of Emmett Till the opera since 2013. 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. To illuminate lifelong heartfelt pain—Mary through her profound music, me through words—our dual partnership advanced and expanded with the artists who joined us along the way. To work with Mary Watkins is a privilege." -Clare Coss

The courage of Mamie Till, the Wright family, young Willie Reed and his family, and others to testify in an armed Klan courtroom, under death threats, broke the Delta Code. The opera introduces to the general audience what Mary Watkins calls 'the greatness of ordinary people, who stood up, suffered, and continued to struggle to bring about change in this country.

"The one invented white character, Roanne Taylor, a schoolteacher who cares but is silent, reflects Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ultimate tragedy: the silence of the good people. She represents the context of White Supremacy in which the world of violence and terror was enabled. She takes a first step forward to break the silence.

"The words of Mamie Till Mobley are a steady guidepost: 'You must continuously tell Emmett Till’s story until everyone’s consciousness rises. Only then will there be justice for Emmett Till.'" -Clare Coss



For more on the opera, from the black composer Mary D. Watkins herself, visit the link below.

bottom of page