Episode 80: dwb (driving while black) with Karen Slack, AKEEN, & UrbanArias

We welcome the creative team and star of dwb (Driving While Black), the new UrbanArias-produced film adaptation of the recent one-woman opera by Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel. We are joined by Du’bois and Camry A’Keen, director and art director; Robert Wood, conductor and Artistic Director of UrbanArias; and Karen Slack, soprano. We learn how this timely and moving piece was created, and the ways that the medium of film enabled the creators to use dance and imagery to delve deeper into the emotional layers of the story. Maestro Wood talks about how he plans to expand the community conversation about the piece and the various ways it could be presented to the public. Karen Slack also gives us insight into how she prepares for emotionally demanding roles and the origin of her popular Kiki Konversations on YouTube. This episode is a fascinating peek into how opera is increasingly entering the world of music video and film as it responds to the major issues of our time.

Listen to the audio-only version here:

Or Watch us on Youtube.

GUESTS: Karen Slack, soprano; Du’Bois & Camry A’Keen, filmmakers; Robert Wood, conductor & UrbanArias founder

Film Synopsis: dwb (Driving While Black)

  • dwb (driving while black) is 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 the central narrative, we meet the Mother in her home. The dangerous world outside, however, is out of the Mother’s control, and anxiety builds in her mind and heart as her “beautiful brown boy” approaches manhood and the realities of modern life as a Black person in America. As the Mother takes the viewer on this journey of memory and metaphor, they will be inclined to wonder: is this real?
  • This adaptation of Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel’s one-woman opera by filmmakers Du’Bois and Camry A’Keen incorporates elements of dance, music video production, and intimate storytelling to bring the audience into the mind of those who live every day… WHILE BLACK.
  • The opera evolved from a series of conversations between Roberta & Susan about raising their sons and the differences due to their race.
  • Roberta Gumbel gave the world premiere performance of stage version accompanied by a Kansas City based ensemble.
    • Kansas Lawrence Arts Center
    • New Morse Code – Cello & Percussion Ensemble
  • Karen Slack recommended the A’Keen’s to Robert Wood to help create this opera film.
    • Du’Bois & Camry decided to create a cinematic version of the opera, as opposed to merely a filmed stage production.
    • They added 3 modern dancers to the cast.
  • Du’Bois’s opera debut began in 2018 as choreographer/guest artist with
    • Arizona Opera
      • Charlie Parker’s Yardbird
    • In 2020 A’Keen Brand was commissioned to work with Opera On Tap.
  • Camry’s first interaction with opera was the 2018 production of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.
    • co-founder of A’Keen Brand
    • Researcher at NYU Center for Genomics and Systems Biology
    • Co-founder and former President of Women of Diversity
    • CEO of MCKany Group, a nonprofit focused on prison reform and building generational wealth.
  • Karen’s first connection with this opera was when Roberta sent her a copy of the “Lullaby” to ask her opinion.
  • Ashley Renee – How has this piece impacted Karen?
    • What is the impact of being called forward to represent during this period in time?
  • In October/November there was moment when Karen hit the wall emotionally, however, she felt a calling to be a vocal advocate.
    • She used family & friends experiences to build the character of Mother, and the mother’s relationship with her son.
      • When performing she needs to go thru all the emotions of the role.
  • When choosing new roles, Karen avoids characters who are victims or who kill themselves in the end.
  • Peter – “What work needs to be done to create the shift in opera for more diversity, equity and inclusion?”
  • Karen
    • It should not be only up to the artists of color to drive the changes needed in the opera world.
      • The younger generation of BIPOC artists and new companies have no patience to wait for their elders to catch up. They are ready now, even if that means burning down the old system.
  • Du’Bois
    • There are many different approached to creating equity
      • Jump into the sandbox with everyone
      • Throw the people out of the sandbox
      • Flip the sandbox over
      • We must be more welcoming of different approaches, that is what will push opera forward as an art form.
      • What is “the work”? Make no assumptions there is a mutual understanding.
  • Ashley Renee
    • The terminology and uses are not clear to everyone.
    • Big issue is not naming the Issues; naming racism, etc.
  • KikiKonversations
    • Why Karen began it and how has it evolved.
      • She had finished performing in The Met’s Porgy and Bess along with many concerts and recitals and was dead tired.
        • Watched other singers creating these new conversations online
          • Decided to create her program because she missed talking with people about their work and lives. It is meant to be a platform for artists to gain them attention, not as a promotional tool for Karen.
          • Her dream is take classical music and opera and use them to connect people on a bigger platform.
            • Episode 1 with J’nai Bridges premiered on 5/23/20
            • Episode 2 with Terence Blanchard and his wife, Robin Burgess – artist manager
            • Episode 15 – Jammin’ Composers on 6/30/20
            • Episode 18 – Stephanie Blythe on 7/16/20
  • Peter – How is opera being positioned to create conversation within communities?
  • Robert
    • UrbanArias is using online sessions to connect with the Washington, DC area communities.
      • They have been doing audience talkbacks since 2012.
        • All their commissioned programming runs no longer than 90 minutes.
  • Walker – How did they create this work together?
  • Karen – Bob knew they had to find an elevated way to present dwb.
    • It was a big experiment for both Karen & Bob.
  • Du’Bois – his first reaction was “Is there another Black trauma piece?”
    • In writing the screenplay they inquired “What is the work asking for?”
      • What are the different states we find the Mother going thru?
      • What ways could they build up the character so that white audiences could relate to this story?
  • Robert
    • The pandemic made him have to go further into their work.
    • They want to be talking about the Now, modern real stuff.
  • Brooke
    • Opera as Music Video is growing, especially because of the new dramatic art song cycles being created.
  • Karen
    • Artists are being heard.
    • They are gaining new agency.
      • It would be a travesty to go backwards as live opera returns.
  • Ashley Renee
    • Opera is catching up to how other styles of music easily move between live and visual work looking at how the work lives as a piece in each media.
  • Robert
    • Opera has gone so far away from its origins.
      • What if we can engage living composers into a fluid development and presentation of their work?
  • Brooke
    • What if the opera world did longer runs?
      • Would that mean presenting in smaller venues?
        • Different ticket price points?
  • Robert & Walker
    • Opera films are expensive.
    • They require more production staff than are regularly needed for the live stage.
  • Du’Bois & Camry
    • It takes some work explaining to opera companies what further funding you need to create these films.
      • How to deal with Marketing, Roll Out and Distribution.
        • How to build further engagement with the film audiences.

Current Music Playlist:

  • DuBois
  • Nina Simone- Ne me quitte pas (on repeat)
  • Maverick music – Jireh (on repeat)
  • Camry 
  • Beethoven – Moonlight Sonata 
  • The Gift Album – Beyonce 
  • RobertMichaela Kaune’s recording of Strauss orchestral songsJosquin motets Queen’s Night at the Opera Montserrat Caballé’s recording of La GiocondaWhatever I am listening to in consideration of future programming

Opera/Opera Recording/Opera Singer:

  • Du’Bois
  • I love Anything that’s by the incomparable Leontyne Price 
  • First Favorite Opera – La Donna By: Karen Slack (For colored girls soundtrack) – I choreographed to it in college.) 
  • RobertListening to Sherrill Milnes made me want to be a Verdi baritone. Even though that was clearly not in the cards, the vocal athleticism of the great singers of his era gave me an undying respect and love for the sheer power of the human voice in this art form. Seeing Lorraine Hunt perform at San Francisco Opera was an inspiration of a different sort – her subtlety and artistry were profound. Working with Nikolaus Harnoncourt when I sang in the Arnold Schönberg Chor in Vienna was tremendously inspiring, given his tremendous musicality, and his ability to weave details and big statements into intensely compelling performances.



DuBois AKeen ( Choreographer/ Director) & Camry AKeen ( Designer & Scientist) are the founders of A’KEEN BRAND; a modern creative agency and production company. Over the past 5 years the A’Keens through A’KEEN Brand have worked with  FOX Network, Nike, VITAE LONDON, Spitfire Sunglass, Simmons Beauty and other notable companies. Camry started her professional career as a research scientist and worked for the Department of Agriculture in Georgia. Additionally, she made strides working in the fashion industry and retail with global companies like American Eagle and international companies like Gelato Pique establishing their footprint in the US. She is a founder and pioneer: as the co-founder and former President of Women of Diversity she is the current CEO of MCKany Group, a nonprofit focused on prison reform and building generational wealth. Du’Bois started his professional career primarily working as a dance artist, singer and choreographer: touring, teaching and performing. During his tenure as a touring and performing artist, his career began to pivot as he expanded his work and resume as Branding & Marketing Strategist/Consultant for several companies and high profile individuals. Later, transitioning him into the roles of Producer and Director for Film and Television. Now he is using the wealth of experience and skill that he has developed over the past 15+ years to continue expanding as a storyteller. Over the last few years that has been the world of Opera. He made his Operatic Debut, in 2018, as the Choreographer and Guest Artist of Charlie Parker’s YardBird with the Arizona Opera. In 2020 A’KEEN Brand was commissioned to work with OPERA On TAP. Now as a directorial team the A’Keens will premiere their newest film, DWB (driving WHILE BLACK), starring Opera Soprano Karen Slack, commissioned by UrbanArias and produced by their company A’KEEN BRAND.

Robert Wood (Conductor) is UrbanArias’ founder. Under his leadership the company has achieved national recognition and has given over 125 performances, including seven commissions and eleven world premieres. Notable productions have included After Life/Josephine, and Glory Denied (Cipullo), The Last American Hammer and Blue Viola (Hilliard), Pauls Case (Spears), Independence Eve (Boquiren), As One (Kaminsky), and two film productions: The Roost (Cortes) and Driving While Black (Kander). Maestro Wood made his debut at the San Francisco Opera with Verdi’s La traviata starring Rolando Villazon, and has also conducted Litaliana in Algeri and several concerts there. He recently conducted Rigoletto at Austin Opera, Silent Night at the University of British Columbia, As One at Hawaii Opera Theatre and Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Three Decembers at Kentucky Opera, and Roméo et Juliette and Carmen at Opera Colorado. He has conducted Litaliana in Algeri, Le nozze di Figaro, La donna del lago, Rusalka, and Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Minnesota Opera. Mr. Wood has also at Vancouver Opera, Indiana University Opera Theater, San Francisco Ballet, and Wolf Trap Opera. Mr. Wood held the position of Chorus Master at The Santa Fe opera from 2001 to 2004. He received a BM in voice performance from Northwestern University and an MM in opera coaching from Florida State University, and was a participant in the Merola Opera Program at San Francisco Opera, which led to a ten-year relationship with that company.

Karen Slack (Soprano) Hailed for possessing a voice of extraordinary beauty, a seamless legato and great dramatic depth, American soprano Karen Slack has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera where she made her debut in the title role of Verdi’s Luisa Miller, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, and San Francisco Opera. In recent seasons, she has appeared as Alice Ford in Falstaff, Leonora in Il Trovatore and Tosca with Arizona Opera, as Aïda at Austin Opera, Emelda Griffith in Champion with New Orleans Opera, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni with Nashville Opera, Violetta in La Traviata with Sacramento Opera and Sister Rose in Dead Man Walking with both Minnesota Opera and Vancouver Opera and her Scottish Opera debut as Anna in Puccini’s Le villi. Additionally, Ms. Slack portrayed a featured role as the Opera Diva in Tyler Perry’s movie and soundtrack “For Colored Girls.”

Ms. Slack’s 2019-2020 season included a return to The Metropolitan Opera as Serena in Porgy and Bess, a recital with Opera Philadelphia, guest soloist for Madison Opera’s virtual Opera in the Park, and a series of recitals throughout the US including the Vilar Center for the Performing Arts in Vail, Colorado with pianist Joe Illick. This season sees her in digital performances with Opera Philadelphia, Houston Grand Opera, Madison Opera, and Minnesota Opera. Additionally, she stars in Driving While Black with Urban Arias. In response to the rush of cancellations due to COVID-19, Ms. Slack launched a digital talk show, KikiKonversations, which has garnered critical acclaim and a large online following.

Other recent performances include Tosca with Opera Birmingham, Addie Parker in Yardbird with Arizona Opera, Sister Rose in Dead Man Walking with Atlanta Opera, Serena in Porgy and Bess with Fort Worth Opera, and her debut with Opera Theatre of St. Louis as Billie in Fire Shut Up in My Bones. In concert, she was a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the world premiere of Hannibal Lokumbe’s Healing Tones with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Union Symphony Orchestra for Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder.

Equally at home on the concert stage, Ms. Slack has performed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Mahler’s 2nd Symphony and the Verdi Requiem with various orchestras throughout the US. Abroad she has appeared with the Melbourne Symphony, Sydney Symphony, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestras, and most recently, with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in celebration of the 80th birthday of Mo. Yuri Temirkanov. She made her Carnegie Hall debut as Agnes Sorel in Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans with Orchestra St. Luke’s and will return in Spring 2021 with the

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for Beethoven’s Egmont. Additional upcoming engagements for the 2020-2021 season include her debut with the Houston Grand Opera for the world premiere of Joel Thompson’s A Snowy Day, Poulenc’s La voix humane with Madison and Austin Opera, Atlanta’s Spivey Hall recital with Alan Morrison in the world premiere of a work by American composer Adolphus Hailstork, Verdi’s Requiem with Highlander Concert Series at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and a concert of arias with Omaha Opera and Symphony. A graduate of the Adler Fellowship and Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Opera, the native Philadelphian is also a graduate of the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. She is a winner of numerous competitions and awards: most notably the Montserrat Caballe International Competition, Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, George London Foundation Award, Marian Anderson ICON Award, Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, Rosa Ponselle International Vocal Competition, Portland Opera Lieber Award, Liederkranz Foundation Award and the Jose Iturbi International Competition for Voice.

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