City Creatives: Samantha Williams questions patriotism through opera

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City Creatives: Samantha Williams questions patriotism through opera
Samantha Williams’ new opera examines patriotism from four different perspectives. (Courtesy photo)
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By James Matheson | jmatheson@alextimes.com

A young woman stands center stage in front of eight musicians, cotton hoodie pulled low over her eyes and Black skin. As the bulging veins inside Samantha Williams’ neck appear to fight their way out, she is fighting to free Americans of different backgrounds, cultures and religions from their own biases.

Williams’ mezzo-soprano voice echoes against the sandstone-tiled floor of the Immanuel Chapel at the Virginia Theological Seminary. She’s combining her opera talents and interest in social justice, current events and politics in her hometown and mere miles from Washington, D.C., where she witnessed the intensity of the George Floyd protests in the spring and summer of 2020.

“I had this moment where I was there taking in the tanks, the people in militia gear and the protesters,” Williams said. “I had this moment where I realized that everybody there could be there because they thought they were being a patriot.”

Williams’ show, “American Patriots,” was born that day. She set out to break barriers and disprove stereotypes across race, wealth, religion and sexuality to answer this one question: What does it mean to be a patriot in our polarized society?

Before Williams was writing operatic shows, earning a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University then two master’s degrees from the University of Michigan, she was a 2-year-old girl using hair brushes as pretend microphones, her father said. He also boasted that his daughter received no more than five B’s in her entire academic life.

“Luckily she has my wife’s voice and my hamminess,” Samantha’s father, Dr. Kevin Williams, said.“Otherwise she’d be homeless,” he added with a laugh.

After a few years of singing songs like “Sax Machine,” a rendition of James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” Williams got her start in Douglas MacArthur Elementary School’s fifth grade musical. Soon after, she began singing for the choir at Alfred Street Baptist Church; it was there that she became comfortable singing in front of large crowds despite suffering from severe stage fright as a child.

As Williams flew through her education, voice lessons and other performing arts development, she began to realize she was often the only Black student in some classes. This created an ultra-awareness of her own ability to share experiences with those around her.

She recalled these experiences when creating her show.

“I’m used to having to translate my story or my experience, and kind of share it in ways that I think people will be willing to hear,” Williams said. “It’s something I’ve thought a lot about: how we tell our stories, how we tell those experiences. I’m very used to that feeling of looking at who’s in the room and trying to figure out how you cater it to them.”

It’s this disconcerting feeling that Williams experienced growing up in Alexandria that she is seeking to answer through her work. She said her personal goal for the world as a Black woman is to create situations of empathy that help us get past that initial impulse to shut down or judge individuals who are different from ourselves.

“No question this is the right time for this [show],” Dr. Williams said. “Everyone on all sides thinks they’re a patriot. There’s a sense of fear that their America is at risk.”

To find answers to this question of patriotism, Williams interviewed dozens of people across four different groups across the United States: African Americans, Indigenous people, white working class people and New Americans – a person who considers themselves new to the U.S. and non-native English speakers – in an attempt to unveil the most pressing issues for each of these communities.

‘Sovereignty’ by Danielle Jagelski explores what it feels like fighting for the rights promised to indigenous nations in the United States. (Photo/Rashid Mahdi)

These interviews resulted in conversations with 20 different Americans. They were compiled into a verbatim, 1.5-hour long theatrical song cycle, a group of individual songs designed to be performed in a sequence.

“The idea is that regardless of who you are in the audience, regardless of what your political beliefs are … you will be exposed to people who think differently than you,” Williams said. “You will laugh with people who think differently than you. You will empathize with people who think differently than you. It’s all about productive discomfort.

Williams selected composers from each of the aforementioned four cultural backgrounds to eliminate her own biases and upbringing while creating the show. Williams drafted composers Regina Harris Baiocchi, Gala Flagello, Danielle Jagelski, Marc LeMay and Yaniv Segal to represent these identities.

She said these individuals could best pair each particular interview with music, which further connects the communities featured within the show.

“The words got me thinking immediately with two of the songs that I wrote: ‘Polarity,’ and ‘Aging Out,’” Segal, who serves as the musical director and conductor of the show, said. “As soon as I heard ‘Aging Out’ I knew it was a swing kind of “duh da duh da.” And ‘Polarity,’ a non-native speaker who said those words, to me, had a different meter than an English native or primarily English speaker.”

“Polarity,” “Aging Out” and more than a dozen songs like them are performed by a three-person cast consisting of Williams, New York-based Annie Sherman and Evan Korbut, a baritone from Toronto.

Baritone Evan Korbut and Creator/Mezzo Samantha Williams sing ‘Honor’ by Marc LeMay. (Photo/Rashid Mahdi)

The opera show is set up as a workshop; the nearly 22-person cast and crew encouraged both advice and donations from the audience to improve the show moving forward.

Williams and the rest of the cast will be performing “American Patriots” in Palo Alto, California this May. In the meantime, the 2013 T.C. Williams High School graduate will be working with local schools – including her alma mater, now known as Alexandria City High School – in performing down-sized, recital versions of the show.

Williams will also discuss the themes of the show with students from ACHS, Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the National Cathedral School in an attempt to give back to the community that molded her into an innovator and activist.

“Something that was really important for me was that it was approachable, accessible and really about the storytelling,” Williams said. “That’s the part where we really played around. It has jazz, it has rock, it has musical theater moments. It has a huge mix of things.”

To stay up to date with “American Patriots,” you can visit the show’s site at americanpatriotstheshow.com.

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