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dwb (driving while black) Opera Comes to Birmingham’s Red Mountain Theatre

Allison Sanders, second from left, with General Director Keith A. Wolfe-Hughes, left, and cast during rehearsal for dwb ("driving while black") at the Red Mountain Theatre. (Joe Songer, For The Birmingham Times)
By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times

Prior to graduating from high school in Memphis, Tennessee, the multitalented Allison Sanders didn’t have any idea where she would attend college, but she had something that that would help steer her to a successful career as a renowned singer.

“I ended up with amazing people in my life,” she said.

Sanders, a soprano, plays the lead in Opera Birmingham’s “dwb, (driving while black a one-act show that explores issues of racial injustice while telling the story of an African American parent whose son has reached driving age. A three-day run of “dwb”—Friday, January 27, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, January 28, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, January 29, at 2:30 p.m.—will take place at the Red Mountain Theatre Arts Campus Discovery Theatre in downtown Birmingham.

Sanders credits several people who have given her support. In addition to Janice and Steve Aiken, [general manager] at Opera Memphis, she points to Barbara Marshall who sent Sanders, her voice teacher, and her mother to New York City on a college tour: “She paid for everything,” Sanders said.

During the trip, Sanders had the opportunity to meet and have lessons with professors at prestigious private institutions for the study of classical music or other arts, also called conservatories, including the Julliard School and the Manhattan School of Music, both of which provide a variety of music, dance, and drama programs to talented students.

“[Marshall] really believed in my talent,” said Sanders. “I didn’t understand it at 17, but now looking back that was a big deal.”

Going to Julliard was always a dream for Sanders until she heard about the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: “My voice coach told me, ‘If you get in, it’s free.’ I said, ‘Sold.’”

Allison Sanders, a soprano, who plays the lead in Opera Birmingham’s “dwb (driving
while black),” grew up singing in a church in the Ensley neighborhood. (Joe Songer, For The Birmingham Times)

Before enrolling, Sanders had to audition. “I thought [my audition] was horrible. I forgot the words. But I got the call back. I was accepted,” she said, explaining that Curtis is among the top conservatories in the country, and only three percent of the students accepted there each year are African American.

At the time, the school didn’t have dorm rooms, so Sanders shared an apartment with another student in downtown Philadelphia. “I was like a fish out of water,” she said. “I was like, ‘What is happening? But this is so cool.’”

Sanders, who had been sheltered while growing up, knew her first line of business was to find a church. “During my mom’s first visit [to Philadelphia], her first words were, ‘We’re going to find you a church.’

She said, ‘We will drop off your stuff, and I have heard of this pastor [at 19th Street Baptist Church in South Philadelphia], so we’re going,’” Sanders said. “I was in church every Sunday.”

Because of her busy schedule, Sanders did not join the church’s choir, but she did sing occasionally.

“They would call me up to sing,” she said, adding that she had built a very strong relationship with the pastor and his wife. “[They] would call me and come pick me up. I would spend the night at their house and everything.”

Sanders got her first singing job with Opera Philadelphia and had a chance to share the stage with artists such as Alan Opie, a British baritone opera singer, and American dramatic soprano opera singers Christine Goerke and Angela Brown.

“I got a $1,000 check and said, ‘I’m going to buy an iPad. … Oh, my God, I’m a professional,’” Sanders laughed. “I was so lucky. I was so young. I probably would have only four lines, but to see those major opera singers, at times I would be like, ‘I don’t know if I belong here.’”

Sanders earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the Curtis Institute of Music. She then went on tour with the Glory Gospel Singers for three months in Germany and Japan.

“The Glory Gospel Singers opened a classical division, and three of us were classical singers. [The tour abroad] was during the Christmas holidays, so we did Christmas shows and [the citizens] treated us like royalty. All of our shows sold out.”

The group was in Japan for one month. When the tour came to an end, Sanders, who wasn’t ready to return to the U.S., knew the group was headed to Germany for two months, so she accompanied them there before returning home to Tennessee and eventually to Birmingham, where her mother had already moved.

“I needed a job, so I worked at the at the Hudson News [located at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International] Airport,” she said. “I also was a nanny.”

Asked what performance she’s most proud of Sanders, who teaches at Miles College, Samford University and Cornerstone Schools of Alabama on the east side of Birmingham, said, “It wasn’t in an opera but in high school, when I got to perform for the Freedom Awards at the Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ [in Memphis] with [former U.S. President] Bill Clinton and [U.S. Congresswoman] Maxine Waters. I got to sing ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ after [Clinton’s] speech, and the crowd started standing, clapping, and singing. It was an overwhelming moment,” said Sanders, who also performed during The World Games 2022, which was hosted in Birmingham.

“I performed [“Alabama, You Belong to Me”] during the closing ceremony. It was so cool,” she said. “I’d always wanted to perform in a stadium, and I was completely starstruck being around people like [former ‘American Idol’ standouts] Ruben Studdard, Bo Bice, and Taylor Hicks, as well as [Stellar Award-winning gospel artist] Pastor Mike Jr. The people and the lights made me want to do it again.”

“dwb (driving while black)” will be performed on Friday, January 27, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, January 28, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, January 29, at 2:30 p.m. at the Red Mountain Theatre Arts Campus Discovery Theatre in downtown Birmingham. For more information, visit www.operabirmingham.org/dwb.

Updated at 12:39 p.m. on 1/25/2023 to correct name of high school where Sanders teaches.