Driving While Black

"Driving While Black" chronicles the internal struggle of a black mother when her son learns how to drive.

Several University of Kansas School of Music faculty will present “DWB (Driving While Black)” at the Lawrence Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. this coming Saturday. The one-act opera will highlight the fears of a black mother when her 16-year-old son begins to drive.

The feature is somewhat autobiographical. University of Kansas lecturer Roberta Gumbel, the librettist and soprano of the work, has a son, a freshman at the University, who's driving in today’s political and social climate.

“I hope for the community, that it brings a topic that, right now, is in the headlines, to a broader conversation,” Gumbel said. “We talk about it when something bad happens, but then it just simmers, and maybe by giving a musical voice to it, it makes it more universal because people are now listening to it who might ignore the situation, or the status of the way things are in the country right now.”

The one-woman show will feature Gumbel performing with cello and percussion accompaniment from University professors Hannah Collins and Mike Compitello, respectively. The music was composed by Gumbel’s longtime friend and composer Susan Kander.

“The idea to write about this came out of conversations [Kander and I] had about life,” Gumbel said. “We weren’t even thinking about writing at the time. She knows my son and later said that it would be cool to write about and that’s how the piece got its start.”

Compitello, who performs with Collins in the ensemble 'New Morse Code,' said he is excited to perform classical music with a modern theme.

“For us as musicians, and especially as musicians who play classical music, it’s great to be able to perform a piece that says something about the times in which we live,” Compitello said. “It enables me to connect to an experience that I personally as a white man will never have.”

Compitello also said he is excited to potentially introduce the opera genre to a wider audience.

“Because of the subject matter, it’s possible that we reach people that I won’t have met before and that’s exciting,” he said.

Both Gumbel and Compitello stressed the importance of discussion about the topic of racial profiling and the concept of driving while black.

“Personally, we live in a divided time right now and more than ever it’s really important to listen,” Compitello said. “[The story] is somebody’s life experience — Roberta’s experience as a mom. It’s not trying to say anything bigger or give any prescriptions, but I think what’s really important about it is that it gives us a window into somebody else’s own life.”

Gumbel said this feature is personal not just because she gets to tell her story but also because she had a hand in creating it.

“I’ve always just been given the music to sing, but this time I have a part in creating it,” Gumbel said. “To be able to collaborate and not just be the performer is amazing. [Compitello, Collins and Kander] are wonderful musicians and I get the fun of working with them.”

The Lawrence Arts Center has a new display called "Affectionate Indifference. A Cat-emporary Exhibibition," featuring art pieces centered around cats. The display even houses a few kittens that are up for adoption from the Lawrence Humane Society. 

Gumbel also discussed the uniqueness of the opera form tackling this subject. Classical music, she said, doesn’t always comment on matters ripped from the headlines. The piece was originally going to be a song cycle, but the term “opera” tells the audience it is a longer, more dramatic form of art.

“It expanded and became more theatrical than our original idea of a song cycle, so we call it an opera. But it really doesn’t matter what you call it,” Gumbel said.

Gumbel said she hopes audience members come with an open mind to the stylings of contemporary classical music as well as an open heart when discussing the subject matter.

“It is part of our American society right now — the fear of driving while black. To have more people have it on their radar, is an opportunity that we have,” Gumbel said. “I would like for them to relate, and if not relate, accept that this is real life.”

Tickets are on sale now and are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $10 for students. The opera will also be performed in Kansas City, Kansas in January.