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Fort Worth Opera Presents Regional Premiere of Contemporary American Opera, dwb (driving while black)

Modern one-act opera offers transformative resonance, audience engagement opportunity after every performance.

(Fort Worth, Texas) This February, Fort Worth Opera presents the regional premiere of a modern American one-act opera, dwb (driving while black). With exquisite music, intense vocals and lyrics that range from the universal ("Don't make me stop this car!") to the painfully specific ("You are not who they see"), dwb (driving while black) presents 16 years of a Black mother’s hopes and fears for her son. As her child grows up and learns to drive, the Mother is haunted by visions of all the ways this ritual of adulthood could go wrong for her “beautiful brown boy” in a society plagued by racism and inequality.

Fort Worth Opera General & Artistic Director Angela Turner Wilson spoke of her choice to present this work as part of the company’s 2023–2024 season, “If you think about the operas we consider traditional today, many brought pointed social commentary to their debuts. Verdi, Puccini, and even Mozart imbued their most beloved works with narratives of class, race, and culture. Those works became classics because art speaks to all audiences, and great work bridges all divides. We hope that the whole community here in Fort Worth will join us for this new classic, to experience with us the transformative power of great art.”

Created by Susan Kander (composer) and Roberta Gumbel (librettist), dwb (driving while black) evolved as a dream collaboration between friends and colleagues. In 1996, soprano Gumbel created the lead role of Harriet Tubman in Kander’s opera, Never Lost a Passenger. Since then, the two have collaborated frequently as composer and singer, but never before as co-creators. The collaborative project that would become dwb (driving while black) began after Gumbel mentioned her son’s driving lessons, revealing a crushing vulnerability — the reality of “the talk” that Black mothers give their sons as they approach manhood. As the project developed and took increasing inspiration from Gumbel’s life, it moved beyond a chamber music song cycle and took on fully operatic narrative sweep and importance.

Composer Kander spoke of her hopes during the development process: “We wanted to create a piece that provides a resonant experience of what it’s like to be these very real people: a particular Black mother, a particular child, with their laughter and tears like any family. Because that’s how things get better, by truly seeing and understanding each other. There’s a recurring phrase in the opera, ‘You are not who they see… you are not who they see.’ When Roberta sent me that phrase, I knew it was the heart of the story. We see  people who are not ourselves as ‘them,’ but ‘them’ is always a real person, another individual.”

The Fort Worth Opera production of dwb (driving while black) marks only the second time that librettist Gumbel will not be performing as the Mother, with a new soprano taking on the emotionally and technically challenging role. “This is a personal work for me,” said Gumbel. “And I’m thrilled and intrigued to watch it take on new contours as it draws inspiration from another strong Black woman with her own unique voice and experiences.” 

In the Fort Worth Opera production, Ayvaunn Penn directs with Marsha Thompson (soprano) performing as the Mother. Soprano Thompson has been recognized in the New York Times for her “warm, agile soprano” and “stellar performance” as Violetta in the New York Grand Opera Company performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s, La Traviata. Recent performances by Thompson include the title roles in Verdi’s Aida and Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, and as Bess in George Gershwin’s American opera, Porgy and Bess.

The score and staging are a unique element of dwb (driving while black), with solo vocalist Thompson joined onstage by two instrumental performers: Cremaine Booker (cello) and David Verin (percussion). All three performers take part in the opera narrative, with the cello and percussion providing counterpoint “voices” onstage — serving as a Greek chorus of sorts, while adding poignancy and dramatic punctuation to the piece.

As a special bonus, Fort Worth Opera invites ticket holders to join key members of the creative team — including composer Kander and librettist Gumbel — in talkback discussions after every performance. These sessions will be moderated by TCU faculty members Dr. Stacie McCormick and Dr. Brandon Manning.

Encouraging audience members to take part in these panel discussions, General & Artistic Director Wilson said, “dwb (driving while black) is more than an opera: it is a celebration of the human experience, an exploration of emotions, and a testament to the enduring power of art. We want to thank the TCU community for assisting us in putting together these amazing panels and we hope that everyone in the audience joins us to share their own transformative stories, thoughts and feelings.”

dwb (driving while black)A one act opera by Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel.

Ayvaunn Penn directs with Marsha Thompson (soprano), Cremaine Booker (cello), and David Verin (percussion).

50 minutes, no intermissionSung in English with English supertitles

Please plan for an additional 60 minutes to engage in the talkback and panel discussion post show.

Friday, Feb. 16 at 7:30 pm

Saturday, Feb. 17 at 7:30 pm

Van Cliburn Concert Hall at TCU

2900 W Lowden St / 2805 S University Dr, Fort Worth TX

Saturday, February 24 at 2:00 pm

Kimbell Art Museum

333 Camp Bowie Blvd, Fort Worth TX


Founded in 1946 by three visionary women — Eloise MacDonald Snyder, Betty Berry Spain, and Jeanne Axtell Walker — Fort Worth Opera is the oldest opera company in Texas, and one of the oldest opera companies in the United States. The organization has received local and national attention from critics and audiences alike for its artistic excellence, pioneering spirit, and long history of community-based cultural engagement. In addition to producing traditional repertoire with rising stars and inspirational young talents, the company is known throughout the operatic world as a champion of new American works.

With a dedication to the community both on and beyond the operatic stage, Fort Worth Opera boasts a highly successful opera education program, consisting of The Lesley Resident Artist program and the Children’s Opera Theatre, which brings opera to nearly 40,000 school children each year across the state of Texas.

Fort Worth Opera is committed to producing opera of the highest possible artistic quality and integrity; to identifying and training talented young singers; to serving as a crucible for creating new American operas; to joining forces with other arts organizations in significant collaborations; and to enriching the community by stimulating cultural curiosity and creativity in people of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds.

Visit for more information.


Roberta Gumbel (Left) and Susan Kander (Right), Photo Credits Rick Hellman

Composed by Susan Kander with a libretto by Roberta Gumbel, dwb (driving while black) presents a montage of poetic and haunting moments examining the trials and triumphs Black mothers experience as their children come of age in a society plagued by racism and inequality. In this contemporary one act opera, we meet the Mother, examining a dangerous world out of her control. Anxiety builds in her mind and heart as her “beautiful brown boy” approaches manhood and the realities of modern life as a young Black man in America.

Composer Susan Kander received her BA in music from Harvard University and MM in Composition from Purchase Conservatory. Her adaptation of dystopian novel The Giver by Lois Lowry was commissioned by Minnesota Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Her opera One False Move, about girl bullying, has been produced by at least fourteen different companies and schools, including in South Africa and China. And her opera Never Lost a Passenger, about Harriet Tubman and black abolitionist William Still, was commissioned by Lyric Opera of Kansas City and subsequently produced by nine opera companies.

Soprano Roberta Gumbel created the title role in Never Lost a Passenger, beginning a long-term creative relationship with Kander.

After completing her bachelor and master's of music at Indiana University in Bloomington, Gumbel made her professional debut with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. In addition, she has performed with Michigan Opera Theater, Indianapolis Opera, Opera Memphis, and Philadelphia Opera. A frequent Clara in Porgy and Bess, Gumbel has sung the role internationally and throughout the United States.

Gumbel has performed in opera, concert and musical theater, with Broadway appearances including Showboat, Ragtime, Baz Luhrmann's La Bohème and In My Life. She has been a frequent soloist with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center and can be heard on Jazz at Lincoln Center's Christmas Album.

Currently, Roberta Gumbel is Professor of the Practice, Voice & Opera at Kansas University.


An award-winning playwright and director, Ayvaunn Penn is an assistant professor in the Texas Christian University (TCU) Theatre Department, where she designed the department’s Diverse Voices in Theatre course.

Marsha Thompson has been recognized in the New York Times for her “warm, agile soprano” and “stellar performance” as Violetta in the New York Grand Opera Company performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s, La Traviata. Recent performances by Thompson include the title roles in Verdi’s Aida and Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, and as Bess in George Gershwin’s American opera, Porgy and Bess.

Playing an instrument noted for its similarity to the range and timbre of the human voice, cellist Cremaine Booker (ThatCelloGuy) has performed extensively throughout the U.S., gliding seamlessly between the classical and pop, rock and country, and traditional and avant garde repertoires. He has appeared with artists such as Hans Zimmer, Carrie Underwood, India.Arie, Mickey Guyton, Martina McBride, Jewel, Lindsey Stirling, Michael W. Smith, LeAnn Rimes, Mike Hicks, and many others.

Percussionist David Verin (Percussion Beginnings on Spotify) has devoted much of his professional life to educating audiences on the technicalities of his craft while sharing his personal vision of faith and spirituality. In performance during dwb (driving while black), Verin plays a total of 22 instruments, including vibraphone and the human body — a modern reference to the traditional African American dance style known as Juba, or ham-boning.

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