I can't breathe. A phrase that, ever since Spring 2020, has become synonymous with the murder of George Floyd. Even in the same tragic context of death at the hands of law enforcement, however, he was not the first Black man to utter those words in the final moments of his life. There was Byron Williams in Las Vegas in 2019. James Brown (El Paso) and Willie Ray Banks (Granite Shoals) in 2012. Famously, there was even Eric Garner in 2014. A New York Times article published in June 2020 describes an estimated 70 instances where a person uttered the same or some variation of the same three words to police in the last moments of their lives.
None of us can honestly know what it's like to experience such mortal despair. Dying words are, by definition, only uttered once. Breathlessness, however, is something that we can identify with, albeit in vastly different contexts. Extraordinary moments are described as ones that "take your breath away." Likewise, things that are beautiful beyond compare, such as sunsets or brides on their wedding days, are said to be "breathtaking." In a more base sense, people find themselves out of breath all the time. Things such as jogging up a few flights of stairs, chasing a young child or dog around a home, or any number of activities ranging from the magnificent to the mundane can figuratively or literally make one gasp for air.
That's a theme I wanted to explore with the opera "I Can't Breathe." The contrast between the moments in life that leave us breathless. Tragedies, triumphs, and those moments of intimacy that fall somewhere between. Collectively these experiences make us who we are. They make life worth living. And ultimately, they're the things that are wiped away each time a life is lost to police brutality and racism. They are the unique person that lies behind each headline. That, more than anything, is what I wanted to show with the piece. It's not a nameless face killed whenever one of these stories hits the news cycle. Someone described only by their profession, the family they leave behind, or even the activity they were engaged in at the time of their death. Father. Mother. Athlete. Whatever other generic term a reporter assigns to them. Each end is more than that. Behind each name that becomes a social justice hashtag and each set of dying words that become a rallying cry… there's a story. A story that too often dies with the person.
So in writing "I Can't Breathe," I wanted to share some of those stories. Stories told from the perspective of Black people that you rarely hear from in any entertainment form, especially opera. I also used each character to offer commentary and perspective on various social issues. Unless the discussion is explicitly racism, the Black voice often gets lost in the din surrounding other matters that affect them. Black figures central to the creation of movements like Marsha P. Johnson for LGBTQ rights or Tarana Burke for abuse are not immediately the ones who come to mind on those issues. Too often, the Black voice is relegated to martyrdom. Words and experiences ignored in life are venerated "in memoriam" only. Quotes that miss the experiences that shape them. I wanted to amplify those voices and share some of those experiences in this piece.
I use the line in the show, "Black lives have always mattered…to those living Black lives." With this work, I tried to show a few of those lives. Each one is unique to show that while we all deal with the same racism, we are by no means a monolith as a people. Supporters of so-called "respectability politics" would say that if Black people behaved better, they wouldn't have any problems with law enforcement. A large body of evidence suggests otherwise. Biases, whether implicit or explicit, are informing split-second decisions that are costing lives at an alarming rate. I wrote this piece in response to three deaths in the Spring of 2020. Those of Ahmaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor, and finally George Floyd. According to a Newsweek article published on the first anniversary of his death (5/25/2021), some 229 Black people were killed by law enforcement over that year. The list will likely be even higher as we approach the second anniversary in a few months.
There have been protests, social media campaigns, moments of silence, calls to defund the police, legislation…any number of things produced to hopefully affect some kind of change. In service to the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he famously said, "If you can't fly then run if you can't run then walk if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward" this opera is my attempt to use what I have at my disposal to affect change. My pen. My words. My experiences. If the purpose of theater is truly to serve as a mirror to society, and I believe wholeheartedly that it is, then may this work be that looking glass. I ask audiences only to look into it with me and ask themselves…do they like what they see.