- “Vindication, Cleansing, Catharsis, Hope”: Interracial Reconciliation and the Dilemmas of Multiculturalism in Kay and Dorr’s Jubilee (1976)
On the night of November 23, 1976, an unusually diverse audience arrived at the City Auditorium in Jackson, Mississippi for a much-anticipated premiere. Commissioned by local black opera company Opera/South to celebrate the US Bicentennial, Jubilee was the work of a white librettist, Opera/South director Donald Dorr (1934–2011), and an African American composer, Ulysses Kay (1917–95). Dorr had based the opera’s narrative on a 1966 novel of the same name by Jackson author Margaret Walker (1915–98), which depicted her great-grandmother’s experience of slavery, lynching, emancipation, and Reconstruction.1 In contrast to previous Opera/South performances, which had involved only black soloists, Jubilee called for a diverse cast. The 2,460 audience members present that night watched as both black and white professional leads took the stage, as well as three choruses of students drawn from historically black Jackson State University and Utica College and from the historically white Millsaps College.2 For a city that had witnessed some of the United States’ worst race-related violence and for a nation trying to find a way to move beyond recent social, political, and economic turmoil, this operatic examination of slavery offered a much-needed demonstration of the possibilities of interracial collaboration and reconciliation. [End Page 379]
Although the opera is little known today, Jubilee’s depiction of Southern life in the nineteenth century is significant and unusual in the operatic canon because it directly confronts the terrible history of slavery without succumbing to straightforward racial binaries. The opera succeeds on these terms because both its librettist and composer approached their artistic choices with great nuance and sensitivity, choosing elements from Walker’s long and detailed novel that created a coherent narrative with a contemporary message. In his music, Kay employed a diverse range of historically appropriate musical forms and quotations, including church hymns, spirituals, folk tunes, and ragtime, wrought with his accessibly tonal if chromatically inflected style.3 Dorr’s narrative is centered on Vyry, a slave born in Georgia to John Dutton, a white plantation owner, and his black slave Sis Hetta. Each act explores a significant period of nineteenth-century history: first the final years of slavery, then the Civil War, and finally Reconstruction. Denied the right to marry Randall, a black freeman and staunch abolitionist with whom she has a child, Vyry makes plans to escape with him, but is caught en route to their meeting place. At the end of the first act, she is flogged for her disobedience, while another slave, Mandy, is hanged. Randall does not return and by act 2, Vyry, believing him dead, has married a politically moderate fieldhand, Innis. Meanwhile, as the Civil War rages, Vyry’s half-sister Lillian, the only surviving owner of the plantation, succumbs to madness. Act 3 depicts the now-free Vyry and Innis living happily in an Alabama home of their own, where Vyry is celebrated by a chorus of black and white locals for her work as the community’s midwife. Into this scene arrives the long-lost Randall, angry with Vyry for deserting him all those years ago and for living among whites by choice. She shows him the scars of her flogging to prove her thwarted attempt to escape, but chooses ultimately to remain with Innis to continue their peaceful new life together. (For Dorr’s own synopsis, see the appendix below.)
Dorr and Kay’s Jubilee enacted a symbolic reconciliation between black and white Americans, both on and off stage, in response to a particularly fraught period in US social history. In so doing, the work bore witness to the birth of a new political ideology—multiculturalism—which also strongly influenced the US Bicentennial celebrations for which Jubilee was commissioned. The social turbulence that Jubilee was meant to address was especially evident in Jackson, Mississippi, where Opera/South premiered the work. During the 1960s, Mississippi’s long history of violent racism had drawn thousands of civil rights activists to Jackson. The Freedom Rides, sit-ins, voter registration drives, and Freedom Schools...