Professor revisits painful past in ‘Jubilee’ resurrection

Marquette University Archives

Even though it graced a stage only twice, a little-known 1970s operatic story of racial divide in the U.S. South had one more command performance left, thanks to Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Emily Ansari.

Her article, ‘Vindication, Cleansing, Catharsis, Hope’: Interracial Reconciliation and the Dilemmas of Multiculturalism in Kay and Dorr’s Jubilee (1976), recently earned Ansari a prestigious Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award. It was recently published in American Music.

“Unlike most prizes received by musicologists, this one is not judged by fellow scholars, but by members of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers),” Ansari said. “It is most encouraging to feel those actively engaged in creating and performing music today find an academic piece sufficiently engaging and significant to warrant a prize, especially when the opera the article is about is little known today.”

Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Emily Ansari

Submitted PhotoDon Wright Faculty of Music professor Emily Ansari stands among some of the works of the late composer Ulysses Kay, in his New York home. Her article on Kay’s little known opera, Jubilee, earned her a Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

The opera, Jubilee, was written by a black composer, Ulysses Kay, and a white lyricist, Donald Dorr, for the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. It premiered in Jackson, Miss., a city that had witnessed some of the worst racial conflict of the preceding decades, including the Jackson State shooting and the Medgar Evers murder.

The opera was based on a novel by the African-American author Margaret Walker, which describes her grandmother’s experience as a slave and then a free woman during the era of Reconstruction.

After its premiere, and a second performance, the opera sadly disappeared from view after Walker threatened to sue if it was performed it again.

“I argue the two creators of the opera sought to create a work that served to symbolize the hope inherent in the burgeoning – but still very new – ideology of multiculturalism, offering an opportunity to bring healing to the racial divide in Jackson, Miss. and across the U.S. as a whole,” Ansari said.

It was during her PhD research at Harvard University when Ansari became interested in the works of Kay. She contacted his daughters to see if she might be able to view his papers, which were still in the family home where they lived.

Ansari ended up going to stay with them, looking through the papers and helping to organize them to be donated to Columbia University, where they are now held.

“As I sat in Kay’s office, perusing his files, I became fascinated with this opera – a piece about slavery written for the U.S. Bicentennial for performance in one of the worst centres of racial conflict at that time,” Ansari said. “I wondered how on earth an audience of Southern opera-goers, who had so recently witnessed race-related murders and shootings in their city, responded to an opera that included an on-stage lynching.”

What she discovered, in the correspondence between Kay and Dorr, was the two had hoped their opera would help create healing between the black and white communities.

“Kay and Dorr’s ambitions for the opera help us to understand the complexities of race relations in the South in the 1970s, and the role music can play in shaping the relationship between black history and American history,” Ansari said.

She felt Jubilee deserved to be resurrected, as its message is still relevant today. Even as the United States and Canada like to imagine themselves as ‘post-racial’ nations, there is so much more to be done to confront and heal from a terrible history of racial persecution, exploitation, suppression, and murder, Ansari added.

“Art is an important and useful mechanism through which to do this – something Dorr and Kay astutely recognized,” she said. “When we hear singers sing about their suffering under slavery, or watch actors portray a white man beating or murdering his black slaves, we are obliged to contemplate the darker parts of our nation’s history.

“In a time when national histories are predominantly celebratory, honesty and realism in examining the past is particularly vital, if we are to better relations between racial and ethnic groups in the future. I would really love to see Jubilee staged again for 21st-century audiences.”