Thursday 18 April 07:30pm

NationalSawdust+ presents: An Evening with "Blue" and "Between the World and Me"

With Jeanine Tesori, Kamilah Forbes, Chris Jackson, and Richard Gray

Performances by mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter and Lauren A. Whitehead

6:30 doors • 7:30pm event



On April 18, NationalSawdust+ presents an evening of music, spoken word, and conversation linked to the writings of James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The timely and provocative program features arias from Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson’s new opera Blue, which premieres this summer, as well as excerpt readings from the recent theatrical adaptation of Coates’s watershed book, Between the World and Me, produced by the Apollo Theater; the book, published in 2015, transformed the conversation about race in America. Tesori will be joined by Coates’s One World editor Chris Jackson; Kamilah Forbes, who developed and directed the adaptation; Richard Gray, a social justice advocate working with community residents and youth to fight for equity in public education; and NationalSawdust+’s Elena Park, who will moderate the conversation.

With Tesori at the piano, mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter will perform two excerpts from Blue, commissioned by the Glimmerglass Festival, where the opera will debut in July. Tesori and Thompson’s opera is inspired by contemporary events as well as the Coates book, lovingly written by a concerned father for his son, and Baldwin’s seminal The Fire Next Time (1963), in which Baldwin addressed his nephew. Blue brings audiences into the emotional epicenter of an African-American couple — a father and a mother — who lose their teenage son when he is killed by a police officer.

Lauren Whitehead will perform excerpts from the recent adaptation of Coates’s book; conceived by Forbes with dramaturgy by Whitehead, the work was co-commissioned by the Apollo Theater and the Kennedy Center.

Special thanks to the Glimmerglass Festival and the Apollo Theater.


Blue, a new opera by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson, centers on the hopes and fears of a young black couple as they raise a son in 21st-century America. In this story of love and loss, we see the father, a police officer, and the mother supported by a loving community of fellow law enforcement, churchgoers and friends as they navigate a devastating reality.

“The times are fraught. Lit by lightning and divisiveness. Love, family, friends and the church are there when we need them. And we need them now. We need a song to soothe our sorrows as we confront painful, personal truths. We need music in our lives and our children near to help us repair heartache; music to ultimately lift us and celebrate the bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood togetherness,” says librettist and director Tazewell Thompson.

Blue, commissioned by the Glimmerglass Festival, is a new co-production with Washington National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.


This summer Briana Elyse Hunter will create the role of Mother in the world premiere of Blue at the Glimmerglass Festival. Her previous credits include Carmen (Carmen, Mercédès), La Tragédie de Carmen (Carmen), Little Women (Jo), Xerxes (Arsamenes), Iolantha (Laura), La Fanciulla del West (Wowkle), and La Traviata (Flora). She won the 2018 EncoreMichigan Wilde Award for “Best Performance in an Opera” for her portrayal of Gertrude Stein in Ricky Ian Gordon’s 27.  She has been on the rosters of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, The Santa Fe Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Knoxville Opera, UrbanArias, American Opera Projects, Opera in the Heights, I SING BEIJING, Sarasota Opera, El Paso Opera, and Music Academy of the West where she sang the title role of Carmen under the tutelage of the great Marilyn Horne. She recently made her Lincoln Center Theater debut in their gala performance of Camelot starring Lin Manuel Miranda, and completed a workshop of Intimate Apparel by Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage, directed by Bartlett Sher also at Lincoln Center Theater. Next month she will make her role debut as Hannah after in Laura Kaminsky’s As One at Merkin Hall.


Blue Director & Librettist Tazewell Thompson with Composer Jeanine Tesori

Jeanine Tesori won the Tony Award for Best Original Score with Lisa Kron for the musical Fun Home. She has also written Tony-nominated scores for Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center; Thoroughly Modern Millie (lyrics, Dick Scanlan); Caroline, or Change (lyrics, Tony Kushner); and Shrek The Musical (lyrics, David Lindsay-Abaire). The production of Caroline, or Change at the National Theatre in London received the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Her 1997 Off-Broadway musical Violet (lyrics, Brian Crawley) opened on Broadway in 2014 and garnered four Tony nominations, including Best Musical Revival. Her operas include Blizzard on Marblehead Neck (Met/LCT Opera/Theater and Glimmerglass Opera commission); The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me (libretto, J. D. McClatchy, Kennedy Center); and her upcoming collaboration with Tazewell Thompson, Blue, commissioned for Glimmerglass Opera company, will premiere there next season. Music for plays: Mother Courage (dir. George C. Wolfe, with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline), John Guare’s A Free Man of Color (Lincoln Center Theater, dir. George C. Wolfe), and Romeo and Juliet (Delacorte Gala). Film scores: Nights in Rodanthe, Every Day, and You’re Not You. Ms. Tesori is a member of the Dramatists Guild and was cited by the ASCAP as the first female composer to have two new musicals running concurrently on Broadway. She was the founding artistic director of Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center, and a lecturer in music at Yale University. She is the founding Creative Director of the non-profit A BroaderWay, an arts empowerment program for young women, and she was given the Einhorn Mentorship Award by Primary Stages for her exceptional work with young artists. Most of all, she is the proud parent of Siena Rafter.


Richard Gray is the Deputy Director of Community Organizing and Engagement Programs at the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University (Metro Center), which provides support and strategic assistance to community and youth organizing public education campaigns and programs in New York City and nationally; it helps build alliances among CBOs, unions, and research/policy institutes. Richard also incorporates film in his work, serving as Executive Producer of Vision to Victory: An Education Roadmap for a New Mayor (2016) and Culturally Responsive Education: A Short Film Series (2018). As a lecturer at Columbia Law School, he helps students apply their legal training to advance authentic collaboration between educational institutions and communities.

Previously, Richard directed the Community Organizing and Engagement at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and Annenberg’s Center for Education Organizing at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform; he also served as the Director of National Technical Assistance at NYU’S Institute for Education and Social Policy and the Co-Executive Director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students, a network of child advocacy organizations that works to improve access to quality public education for traditionally underserved student populations.

Richard is a board member of Sweet Blackberry, which produces inspiring animated films for children about little-known African American achievements, and the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which builds the capacity of advocates, students, artists, organizations, and communities to use the arts as an integral part of their social change work.

Richard has a B.A. in History from Brown University and J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.


Hailed by Toni Morrison as “required reading,” Between the World and Me is a bold and personal literary exploration of America’s racial history by “the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States” (The New York Observer). In this profound work, which pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

The theatrical performance of Between the World and Me was a presentation of excerpted selections, read monologue-style by notable guest artists with newly composed music by Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz and MacArthur Genius Award recipient Jason Moran (Selma and Netflix’s 13th), direction by Apollo Theater Executive Producer Kamilah Forbes (Broadway’s Stickfly, NBC’s The Wiz), and interactive visual storytelling by projection media artists.


Lauren Whitehead is a writer, performer and MFA recipient in Dramaturgy (Columbia University). She writes in several forms including poetry, nonfiction, adaptations and drama. Her writings have been published in Apogee Journal, Winter Tangerine, HEArt Online Journal and in selected anthologies including Break Beat Poets, Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic. Most recently, Lauren adapted Ta-Nehisi Coates’s award winning memoir, Between the World and Me, for staging at the Apollo Theater and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts (Dir. Kamilah Forbes).

Lauren has performed her work in venues around the country including The Sundance Film Festival, The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts and The Nuyorican Poets Café. Last fall, Lauren originated the leading role of “Un/Sung” in the opera We Shall Not Be Moved which she has performed at the Wilma Theater, the Apollo Theater and at the Stadsschouwburg Theater in Amsterdam (Dir. Bill T. Jones).  

Lauren is a Sundance Theater Lab Fellow and she has worked as a dramaturg at Hedgebrook and at The Denver Center for Performing Arts. In addition to maintaining a long list of freelance dramaturgy clients, her work as a writing coach was featured in two documentaries, Russell Simmons Presents: Brave New Voices (HBO) and Don’t Be Nice (2018).

Lauren teaches dramaturgy and playwriting at The New School in New York.


An award-winning director and producer, Kamilah Forbes is the Executive Producer for the Apollo Theater, a commissioning and presenting organization and theater located in Harlem, NY. Approaching its 85th year, the Apollo Theater remains dedicated to the projection of the African American narrative and its role in the development of American and global culture. Forbes’s recent projects include directing the sold-out world premiere and theatrical adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s New York Times best-selling book Between the World and Me.

Forbes is noted for having a strong commitment to the development of creative works by, for, and about the Hip-­Hop Generation. Prior to her tenure at the Apollo Theater, Forbes led the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, growing it from a fledgling project into an independent nonprofit organization.


Chris Jackson is the publisher and editor-in-chief of One World, a newly relaunched imprint of Random House. His work as an editor includes Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and other titles, as well as a wide range of award-winning and bestselling authors, including Bryan Stevenson, Jill Leovy, Trevor Noah, Matt Taibbi, and Eddie Huang. One World’s forthcoming lists include Marwan Hisham, Molly Crabapple, Mona Hanna-Attisha, Jean Guerrero, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X. Kendi, and Valarie Kaur. His own writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Callalloo, The, and other outlets. He was recently named one of “12 Leaders Who Are Shaping the Next Generation of Artists” in The Art of Optimism, a TIME Magazine special issue edited by Ava Duvernay. He lives in New York.


NationalSawdust+, a lively performance and conversation series, brings together luminaries from across disciplines to share their passion for music and explore ideas, making surprising connections. It taps artists and thinkers from theater, film, visual art, literature, science, and beyond to create insightful, often topical, programs.

Elena Park

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.