White Snake Projects Gives World Premiere of ‘Is This America?’

By Afton Wooten

The world premiere of Mary D. Watkins and Cerise Lim Jacobs’ opera, “Is This America?” is presented by White Snake Projects on Sept. 20.

This new 90-minute fully-staged opera celebrates the life and legacy of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. “Is This America?” features mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel in the lead role, alongside bass-baritone Eliam Ramos-Silva, and Voice Boston Children’s Choir’s Naila Delgado, as well as an ensemble made up of Nina Evelyn Anderson, Joel Clemens, Carina DiGianfilippo, Isabel Randall, and Chris Remkus. They are joined by the Massachusetts-based Victory Players chamber orchestra, led by Tianhui Ng. Haitian American queer woman Pascale Florestal serves as stage director.

“Is This America?” brings to life how Mississippi activist Hamer galvanized the registration of Black voters in her home state despite overwhelming odds. The title of the work pays tribute to a speech Hamer made 60 years ago, at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, when she petitioned the Convention to give her newly formed political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), seats at the Convention and to recognize the MFDP as the legitimate representative of the people of Mississippi. A year later President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices.

Of the opera, the trailblazing composer says, “My goal is to show the dignity and strength with which Fannie Lou Hamer and her fellow civil rights workers carried themselves in spite of the terror and dehumanizing treatment they were subjected to and to convey the great spirit of love that bound them together. Their story deserves to be told in a grand way – a way befitting the souls of the people who marched in the streets in the hot sun with such determination, singing through their fears while their opponents spat upon them, beat them, kicked them, called them vile names, terrorized their families and imprisoned them. Is This America? is my salute to these beautiful, courageous people. I chose to tell Fannie Lou Hamer’s story as an opera because I wanted to use an art form that would capture the power and sweep of her life. I wanted to give full voice to this amazing African-American female political leader.”

“Is This America?” is 15 years in the making. A chamber orchestra version was workshopped by the Oakland Opera Company in 2009. The first concert version was performed by the Mount Holyoke Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts in 2014. This collaboration marks the second Watkins premiere with the White Snake Productions. Previously, the production company commissioned her virtual opera, “I Am A Lifer,” which is part of “Death by Life,” the company’s musical response to the death of George Floyd.

The opera premiere takes place in part of White Snake Production’s programming centering on the theme of “voting as freedom,” to highlight the 2024 Election Year. Seeking to foster civic engagement through artistic work, much of it co-created with the local Massachusetts community. Leading up to the opera premiere the company will host “Talk With Tunes,” a free community events at various Boston Public Library branches designed to begin a conversation (musical and oral) about Fannie Lou Hamer.

Premiere performances run Sept. 20 through 22 at Dorchester’s The Strand Theatre.