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How Allison Sanders Became Opera Birmingham’s Powerful One-Act Show

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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)
By Nicole S. Daniel
The Birmingham Times

During rehearsal at the Red Mountain Theatre on a recent evening, Allison Sanders is preparing for opening night of 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.

Sanders, a soprano who plays the lead in “dwb,” is with a photographer who is on set for a story profile. She is very patient and reserved, even quiet—until the run-through begins and her powerful voice brings the entire theater to life.

For Sanders, who is mother of a 4-year-old son, Noah, rehearsals can be overwhelming because she can identify with Black mothers as their children come of age.

“There is a point in the opera when the dad dies, and it resonates with me,” she said. “My own son’s father has passed, and it reminds me of him. The opera has very interesting parallels that have made this show more real than I’ve ever imagined. They say art imitates life.”

A three-day run of “dwb (driving while black)”—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.

In the central narrative, the audience meets 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.

Sanders said she had to do this show for her son and boys who look like him. “Hopefully, somebody’s mind is changed, and their perspective is a little different when they leave the show,” she said. “It’s not only about it being a good show. I want your heart to be changed. That’s the driving force.”

“Yes, we want you to enjoy it, but I don’t think [the audience] will be able to walk away from this show without questions,” she added. “‘dwb (driving while black)’ is very much my story. It’s a heavy subject, but I’m so very grateful to Keith [Wolfe-Hughes, the director], for being brave enough to bring it here because it’s so timely.”

Wolfe-Hughes reached out to Sanders about the opera two years ago, while they were working on another performance.

“He didn’t go into details,” Sanders said. “He just told me it was a new opera, briefly [described] what it was about, and sent me music to look at to see if I would be interested.”

Sanders has sung with Opera Birmingham over the last few years, and Wolfe-Hughes said he had wanted to cast her in a show for a while.

“When we decided to program ‘dwb,’ I knew she would be the best person for the show [because] it would fit her voice perfectly,” the director said. “Knowing that she, [like the character in the opera], has a young son, [I knew she] would bring a very personal take to the story, making it an even more powerful performance. I love her voice, and she is such an elegant singer.”

Dream Chasing

Allison Sanders at rehearsal for Opera Birmingham’s “dwb (driving while black)” in Red Mountain Theatre. (Joe Songer, For The Birmingham Times)

Sanders was raised in Birmingham by her mother, Yolunda Davis, who is also a Baptist preacher.

“So, I grew up singing in church,” said Sanders, who can remember being at Corinth Baptist Church in the Ensley neighborhood at least three days a week and all day on Sundays.

Singing in church is why she is where she is today, she said: “A lot of what I’ve learned came from that. I have never wanted to do anything else. I knew at the age of 6 that I wanted to be a singer.”

Though Sanders knew she wanted to sing, she didn’t know what that meant and or what it would require.

“I would be that kid that would stop people on the street and say, ‘Listen to me sing,’” said Sanders, who was a huge fan of late singer and actress Whitney Houston.

“Her voice was like one I had never heard. It was big and beautiful,” she said.

Sanders remembers a time when she was supposed to do an Easter speech at church, “but instead I got up and started singing a song that I had just heard on the radio called [‘I Tried Him and I Know Him,’ which begins with the words ‘so heavy laden’], by gospel artist the Rev. Milton Brunson. That was my first solo in church.”

Her mother was thrilled but confused: “I think I still confuse her,” Sanders said with a smile.

Although her mother was confused, she has always been a supporter, Sanders said.

“I attribute everything to her. I tell her all the time that she really put me out there. Even though she never really got it, … she would always say, ‘Sure’ or ‘Go for it.’ If I wanted to tap dance one week, she would enroll me in tap dance lessons. The thing is she wanted me to be better, and I wanted to be better.”

By the way, Sanders’s mother is still preaching, but she’s now at Nichols Temple African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Ensley.

A New Beginning

Allison Sanders, who is lead in Opera Birmingham’s “dwb (driving while black)”, inside Red Mountain Theatre. (Joe Songer, For The Birmingham Times)

When Sanders was in the fourth grade, around the age of 12, her mother relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, where she found a voice teacher for her daughter at the Kimberly Mitchell Studio.

“I started studying privately with a teacher there,” Sanders said. “That was a thing in Memphis. You find a teacher to go to with a big studio, and everybody gets a T-shirt to represent.”

She got involved in theater troupes, started taking voice lessons, and was in competitions every weekend.

“It didn’t fit,” she said. “I would win third place or honorable mentions, and I didn’t understand why.”

During troupe meetings on Saturdays, Sanders remembers being taught the importance of stage presence.

“Our group was called Teens in Theater,” she said. “Our theater coach would always yell, ‘Stand your ground.’ He would say, ‘This is how you work a stage.’”

Sanders remembers participating in a play called “Memories from Cats.”

“I was in a full cat suit with makeup and singing. That was my go-to song to sing over and over every weekend to qualify for larger competitions,” said Sanders, who would go on to win the Miss South Fair Competition, a regional competition held at the Memphis Fairgrounds, during which acts from the South sing to win cash prizes if they advance to the final.

“I kept losing every year,” she continued. “I would get to the semifinals then lose, [but] I loved being around all of the talented people. … Being around other creators was just so fun to me. I met so many friends from different studios that I’m still friends with now.”

At age 15, Sanders got a new voice teacher and switched to opera.

“That’s when I won the competition after all of those years,” she said. “I did a French song called ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ as a 17-year-old. [The song, which translates to ‘Softly awakes my heart’ in English and is from the Camille Saint-Saëns opera ‘Samson and Delilah’], … is a difficult aria that most 17-year-olds shouldn’t sing. I sung it in all of my college auditions, and people would tell me, ‘You shouldn’t be singing this.’

“It wasn’t appropriate because of the subject matter and vocally it’s meant for someone older to sing. It’s about the [biblical] story of Samson and Delilah, [which is told in Judges 13 through 16].

When Sanders started singing opera, more doors opened for her.

The New Voice Teacher

At age 15, Sanders met Janice Aiken, whose husband, Steve, was the general director of Opera Memphis. Asked about voice lessons from Janice Aiken and what she learned, Sanders said it helped her come out of her shell.

“I was so shy. I would just blend into the background until it was time to do my thing [solo], then I would go back into the background,” said Sanders, who added that she wanted to be like acclaimed singer, songwriter, and performer Beyoncé.

“[Janice Aiken] said, ‘Sing this art song,’ and ‘I was like I’m not singing this Italian song,’” said Sanders. “It stuck, and it fit my voice like a glove. … So, from 15 and up I had the classical music bug.”

Her voice coach gave her a video recording of Grace Bumbry, an African American mezzo-soprano and soprano opera singer, performing French composer Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.”

“[Bumbry’s performance] changed the game. It was a beautiful Black woman in a beautiful red dress just owning everything about her,” said Sanders. “I remember saying, ‘I want to do that.’ I just fell in love. I can still see it.”

Sanders was in her first opera performance as a 17-year-old at the University of Memphis in a show called “The Promise.”

“It was an opera about [the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.]. It was a new piece written in honor of him, and, of course, I was the youngest there,” said Sanders, who vividly remembers the directors of the show arguing about her role in the opera.

“My voice has always been mature, but I was never of age, so some things would be inappropriate. … I ended up being part of this ensemble of three white singers and three Black singers. It was very hard. [The Black and white singers] would have to sit across from each other, knowing that it would be difficult. They had to sing the N-word to us, and we had to sing ‘End Segregation Now’ to them. I can remember the tears forming [in my eyes]. It was emotional, but it was our job.”

Sanders felt angry, sad, and raw after performing in an opera like that at a young age, but she fell in love with the art form.

“It felt right in my voice,” she said. “Even though that show was difficult, there’s something really special about that family you create during each show, being on stage with all of those people that love it as much as you do.”

“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.