'Castor and Patience' opera shows Black land ownership barriers Cousins struggle with debts and may have to sell property long held by their family in a work created by former poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith and composer Gregory Spears.

'Castor and Patience' opera explores systematic barriers to Black land ownership

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A new opera takes on the pervasive barriers to land ownership for Black Americans. "Castor And Patience" at Cincinnati Opera has a libretto by former poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith and a score by composer Gregory Spears. It tells the story of two cousins' struggles in owning and holding on to property that was long held by their family. Elizabeth Kramer has that story.

ELIZABETH KRAMER, BYLINE: Around 2016, poet Tracy K. Smith and composer Gregory Spears began talking about creating an opera highlighting how Blacks have been stripped of land ownership. But their ambitions really began to take shape during their research expeditions to the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. There they met with many people, including Hilton Head Island resident Emory S. Campbell, a descendant of West Africans brought here as slaves.

EMORY S CAMPBELL: This is Black history. When we talk about how people settle after the Civil War, you have to begin with the Gullah culture, with Gullah people.

KRAMER: That history includes massive land loss from property law exploitations.

CAMPBELL: That's a story that America doesn't know very well.

KRAMER: As Smith and Spears met with Campbell, his family and many others throughout the Sea Islands, the story and characters began taking shape.

TRACY K SMITH: We learned about people whose families had owned land - Black families - in the South since Reconstruction. They purchased it from the government by pooling their resources, sometimes with other members of their community. And this land from day one has been sort of fraught.

KRAMER: Their opera, "Castor And Patience," set during the 2008 recession, recounts how Castor, who has grown up in Buffalo, N.Y., is besieged by creditors. So he visits his cousin Patience at the family homestead nestled in the islands. He wants to share his share of land to stave off bankruptcy. But Patience resists as she counts losses in the community.


TALISE TRAVINGE: (As Patience, singing) Half the old families are gone, and the other half are whittling their lots down and down.

KRAMER: Since emancipation, Black communities nationwide have suffered massive property loss from legal abuses including forced sales of jointly owned real estate and discriminatory laws. Spears was reading more about them.

GREGORY SPEARS: Something I thought a lot about and how in that process can I be a part of creating this piece that is about something reckoning with history, which is something we all must do in this country, and the importance of that and how art can play a role in that and really connect an audience emotionally.

KRAMER: The characters include Castor's and Patience's children, who are getting to know each other and about the betrayals their family has endured. Throughout, Patience underscores her efforts in defending the family's land.


TRAVINGE: (As Patience, singing) Image what it's like trying to keep something alive and everyone's doing the best they can to get away, to move on, to cash out and start afresh far away, from scratch.

I think Patience found me rather than the other way around.

KRAMER: That's soprano Talise Travinge. For her, these dilemmas hit home. Her extended family from New Orleans settled in Georgia after Katrina.

TRAVINGE: Another issue of land and people losing land, family losing their land because they couldn't find the deed, which was then underwater.

KRAMER: "Castor And Patience" delves into other aspects of the Black experience in America, such as Castor's lack of power under dubious credit schemes. Castor lashes out in an aria.


REGINALD SMITH: (As Castor, singing) You took my car, my money, my credit. You're working on my name.

KRAMER: This production is part of Cincinnati Opera's push to tell grand operas that reflect Black Americans' experiences. And more operas are coming from Smith and Spears. "Castor And Patience" is part of a trio of operas the pair has set out to complete that tell American stories. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Kramer.

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