Performance information

Performance information

2 hours and 30 minutes, including one Interval

Sung in English, with surtitles in English and Dutch.



Tazewell Thompson

Kwamé Ryan
Tazewell Thompson
Set design
Donald Eastman
Costume design
Jessica Jahn
Lighting design
Robert Wierzel
Eric Norbury



The Father
Kenneth Kellogg
The Mother
Aundi Marie Moore
The Son
Darius Gillard
The Reverend
Will Liverman
Girlfriend 1/Nurse/Female congregant 1
Vuvu Mpofu
Girlfriend 2/Female congregant 2
Thembinkosi Magagula
Girlfriend 3/Female congregant 3
Rehanna Thelwell
Policeman 1/Male congregant 1
Thando Mjandana
Policeman 2/Male congregant 2
Charles Williamson
Policeman 3/Male congregant 3
Martin Mkhize
Toddler Son
Yanu Maciel Bertolino
Omari Komproe

Residentie Orkest The Hague

Commisioned by
The Glimmerglass Festival
Co-production with
Washington National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago


Production team

Assistant conductor
Boudewijn Jansen
Assistant director
Isabel Schröder
Irina Sisoyeva
Abigail Richards
Language coach
Roberta Alexander
Stage managers
Pieter Heebink
Marjolein Bergsma
Luca van Deurzen
Associate costume designer
April Hickman
Assistant costume production
Mariama Lechleitner
Master carpenter
Jeroen Jaspers
Lighting manager
Fred Kooring
Props master
Jolanda Borjeson
Costume supervisor
Sandra Bloos
Makeup supervisor
Frauke Bockhorn
Sound technician
Nina Kraszewska
David te Marvelde
Artistic administration and planning
Margot Vervliet
Jasmijn van Wijnen
Surtitle director
Eveline Karssen
Surtitle operator
Jan Hemmer
Production planner
Mark van Trigt
Production manager
Floortje Halters
Child supervision
Sitara Alakhramsing
Orchestra representative
Harm Jan Schwantje



First violin
Wouter Vossen
Ilya Warenberg
Naomi Bach
Mara Oosterbaan
Jan Paul Tavenier
Pieter Verschuijl
Alexandra Bons
Daniel Perzhan

Second violin
Justyna Briefjes
Barbara Krimmel
Ben Legebeke
Abel Rodriguez Garcia
Sergiy Starzhynskiy
Miyuki Konoe

Timur Yakubov
Jacomine Punt
Moira Bette
Jan Buizer
Elisabeth Runge

Roger Regter
Emma Kroon
Justa de Jong
Tom van Lent

Double bass
Frank Dolman
Jos Tieman

Martine van der Loo
Dorine Schade

Barbara Patricio
Wai Lam Cheng

Arno Stoffelsma
Jasper Grijpink

Dorian Cooke
Erik Reinders

Rene Pagen
Mariëlle van Pruijssen

Erwin ter Bogt
Robert-Jan Hoffman

Timothy Dowling
Arno Schipdam
João Mendes Canelas

Elias Gustafsson

Chris Leenders

Martin Ansink
Murk Jiskoot

Mathilde Wauters

Sepp Grotenhuis

The story

Follow the link below to read the story of Blue.

The Story

The Mother calls her Girlfriends together to her apartment in Harlem to tell them she is expecting a child. Their joy turns to concern when she tells them she is carrying a boy. The Father’s police officer buddies, on the other hand, are immediately joyful – and a bit jealous – when they learn their fellow officer has fathered a son.

Sixteen years later, The Son, a student artist and activist, frequently finds himself at odds with the law for his involvement with non-violent political protests. The Father confronts The Son, who pushes back, accusing his police officer Father of upholding an oppressive system. Despite The Son’s bitter words, The Father tells him he will always love him and hold him close.

After The Son is shot by a police officer at a protest, the heartbroken Father meets with The Reverend, who attempts to comfort him and encourages him to forgive. As the funeral for The Son approaches, The Girlfriends return to Harlem to support the grief-stricken Mother as she prepares to lay her son to rest. At the funeral, Father and Mother find support with the community gathered around them.

In an epilogue, we see The Father, The Mother and The Son, together, in a bitter-sweet moment around the kitchen table, sharing a meal. The Son reconciles with his father and shares his plans for his further education and one last protest.

Trigger Warning

This performance makes references to child loss and depicts scenes of grief that some audience members may find distressing.

Doing the work: opera as conversation

Opera is an Italian word meaning work, and the workers are many – those who write, who interpret, who perform, who build, who witness and respond. In such an intensively collaborative art form, one task is shared by all: conversation. What story do we need, at this time, in this place? And what does each person – what craft, what personal experience, what pain and hope and fear and joy – bring to the project? How does each person make space for other individuals’ skill and wisdom while breathing a new story into being?

Doing the work: opera as conversation

A couple of years ago, Francesca Zambello kicked off the conversation that was to become Blue by contacting the Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori. “I was interested in commissioning an opera that spoke very directly to issues we are facing today,” says Zambello. “I was particularly interested in opening a conversation about America’s ongoing struggle with race. Jeanine is a composer with theatrical sensibility, a keen awareness of the issues shaping our experiences in 21st century America, and a burning desire to tell stories that change hearts and minds.”

Tazewell Thompson, a long-time part of the artistic families of both Glimmerglass and Washington National Opera, was brought on as librettist and director for the project. He has spent a life in theater and opera, as actor, dramaturg, trustee, director and playwright. “With Blue, I return to not what I know, but to what I feel,” Tazewell says. “What I feel for my people, my culture, our survival mechanisms, sense of community; our struggles, setbacks and accomplishments. What I feel is a necessary yarn to spin at this critical moment in our country where all lives matter, in general; where Black lives matter, in particular.”


Against the clichés

The story of Blue was born, revised, and born again out of months of conversation between Tazewell and Jeanine, with Francesca frequently joining in. As the story began to take shape, more conversations were required. In the libretto’s early draft, the father was a jazz musician, but was that a cliché? It was Jeanine’s suggestion that the Father who loses his Son to a police officer’s bullet be an officer of the law. “Absolutely not,” was Tazewell’s immediate response. “I don’t want to, nor do I have the desire, interest or skills to write about a Black police officer.” After further consideration, though, he “recognized the irony, the tension, the glittering possibilities of personal conflict and heartache of a father whose son is murdered by a fellow officer.”

More conversations: Tazewell interviewed two Black police officers, one in Washington, D.C., and one in Harlem. The latter shared that he had a difficult relationship with his son, who was embarrassed and appalled that this dad worked for and with “the man” – the enemy. In the same conversation, Tazewell learned that insurance coverage for the policeman’s entire family – including dental – was a major motivator to join the force. Both of these details were significant as he proceeded with the libretto, as were both officers’ repeated references to their uniforms as “blues.”

Although Blue deals with difficult subject matter, both Tazewell and Jeanine wanted their opera to be rooted in a stable family, with strong community ties. “I don’t think any culture should be represented merely by its suffering,” Jeanine says. “Our characters are innocent, in a way, of what is about to happen to them.” While the Father and the Mother are aware that even their educated, upper-middle class family exists within a racist societal structure, there is reason for them – and the audience – to hope, to dream, to laugh.

Kenneth Kellogg en Aundi Marie Moore tijdens een repetitie van Blue
Kenneth Kellogg and Aundi Marie Moore during a rehearsal of Blue | Photo: Melle Meivogel

Telling your own stories

Even as Tazewell and Jeanine labored over their opera, more stories of unarmed Black men and women killed by police were in the news, each incident leaving communities more raw, more wounded. Composer and librettist made a decision early on not to ask the audience to witness the tragic event that changes everything for the characters. Blue is undeniably the story of a terrible rupture, but it is also a story of relationship. The opera unfolds in a series of conversations – between an expectant mother and her girlfriends, a husband and wife who have just become father and mother, among a fraternity of policemen and fathers, a father and son, a grieving man and his pastor, a community devastated by yet another senseless loss.

In telling a story like this one, the conversations can be difficult, but they are essential. “When people say anybody can tell any story, it’s factually true but morally complicated,” says Jeanine. “It’s not always a comfortable feeling for me. I think of myself as a facilitator, there to illuminate the story of my collaborator. When it comes to structuring the score, I’m on familiar ground. But the source is Tazewell, and when I have a question about story, I call him. As human beings we have so much in common, but with something so charged as racial inequality, a system that has been put in place over hundreds of years, I know I can’t even begin to understand what it’s like.”

For Tazewell, the act of storytelling, of entering into a conversation shared among artists and audience, says “something deeper, something about our profound irreconcilable, (incontestable) communality – we are all singers in the same choir, leaves off the same tree – however the fates divide us: black, brown, yellow, white; Jew, Gentile; Muslim; gay, lesbian, transgender; republican, democrat; rich, poor.”


Intercontinental conversation

Blue premiered in July 2019 at The Glimmerglass Festival. Financial Times gave Blue “pride of place” in a season round-up, noting that “Tesori’s music is eclectic, like so many new operas, but assuredly so. Her orchestration is rich and her vocal lines retain a beauty and eloquence.” New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini included Blue as one of his top picks of 2019, citing “Ms. Tesori’s strong yet subtle score ... combined with Mr. Thompson’s grimly elegant and snappy words.” Wherever Blue is performed, the conversations about the performance – both organised and spontaneously generated in the foyer – are an important element. In this way, Blue shows what the power of a single telephone conversation can be, when we see that it can grow into a national, and with the European premiere of Blue at Dutch National Opera, even an intercontinental, conversation.

Text: Kelley Rourke

‘Blue is a call for hope, understanding and love’

Six questions for librettist and director Tazewell Thompson.

‘Blue is a call for hope, understanding and love’

He called his libretto his ‘letter to the world’. With Blue, Tazewell Thompson wrote a personal cry from the heart about the position of the Black man in his home country and the neighbourhood of Harlem. In recounting the personal tragedy of a Black American family, Thompson tells a story that taps into everyday anxieties, or even mirrors reality, for the entire Black American population. What does Blue mean to the writer and director, who has already made his mark in theatre and opera in a glowing career?

“As a Black man, born, raised and striving to live and survive in America, I feel powerless to change the structure of the political rancour and injustice in my severely imperfect, divisive country that I, nonetheless, love. I always vote, of course, and write letters to my representatives. Yes, I march and protest, for all kinds of rights that are threatened, more so in the last several years under the previous administration. I volunteer at my community food pantry. I do what millions of Americans have done and continue to do as compassionate human beings. It’s not enough. Unable to stand by as my Black brothers and sisters are constantly erased from their families and taken from this world, I can only offer myself as an artist to express my pain and frustration as a writer and director. Blue presents me an opportunity, as the librettist and director, beholden to control my way to celebrate Black joy and love, Black family, Black church and community responsibilities, our grief, anger, pain and resilience. Each company that presents Blue teaches and inspires me to confirm my place as an artist and committed citizen yearning for change to empower my people. I write my letter to the world, the libretto, with an appeal for hope and understanding and love.”

Is Blue an autobiographical story?
“No, Blue is not at all autobiographical. I’m a Black man, and as the writer of this story I see, feel, portray and support all sides: The Mother, Father, Girlfriends, Buddies, the head of the church. If I’m anyone in the opera story, I’m The Son. I’m closest to him. I understand him completely: his love of art, poetry, his fear and loathing of bad cops, and his rage against the seemingly endless nightmare, invincible machine of injustice and political corruption. His determination to fight for change is searingly rousing. I miss him terribly when he is gone.”

As spectators, we see the moments when he is still there, and then the moments when he is no longer there. We do not see what happens in between, but we hear about the events in the conversations between the characters.
“I always saw and wanted the story of Blue, and its Black denizens, to be seen in the opera house, as real identifiable human beings. How they, through my text, might speak, interact and move about the stage space. Their concerns, their faith, work, laughter, love and anguish. I never, not once, ever contemplated showing the actual murder of the son. A lesson I learned from Greek tragedy: the violence is always depicted offstage. The imagination is greater felt and realised than the actual brutal, horrific picture.”

Tazewell Thompson during a rehearsal of Blue
Tazewell Thompson during a rehearsal of Blue | Photo: Melle Meivogel

An important conversation that is part of the performance is the conversation between The Father and The Reverend. Why does the Church and faith play such a big role in the opera?
“The Church is the centre of the Black community. It is second only to family and a tie with education. The leader of the Black Church is the father to us all, our confessor and comforter. The Reverend must play a significant role in Blue.”

Besides the comforting function of The Reverend, traditional food also plays an important, comforting role in Blue.
“Absolutely. I write about food in every play I’ve written. No more so than in Blue. The food of my people, my ancestors, is of specific cultural importance to me. I recognise and celebrate the historical past, and the role food has played in the lives of Black people prior to the slave trade and the inventive necessity that was born on the plantations. The aria The Mother sings in the epilogue is a tribute, an anthem to the seductive bonding nature and healing power of the food of my people. My favourite passage of Black food hosanna comes very early in the opera, when a blessing is given to the about-to-be-born child: “At the end of a rainbow, not a pot of gold, but a pot of greens, with a ham hock on the bottom; Remind you of who you are, where you came from, and how far you may go.”

After several performances in the US, what does it mean to you that Blue will now be seen in Europe for the first time?
“It represents a tremendous sense of accomplishment that Blue is now in Europe. I’m humbled and excited by the achievement, the fact that Jeanine Tesori and I have succeeded in spreading our opera outside of the United States, with new witnesses to our story of Black complexity and soulful yearnings for Blacks to live out their lives. I wish for the audiences in the Netherlands to come for the party, stay for the riveting reality of being Black in America, appreciate the resurfaced resilience of this Black family and community, hold tight the memories of the soaring music by Jeanine Tesori, the outstanding singers, the outrageously unmatched orchestra, led by the great maestro Kwamé Ryan, and tell their community of friends that Blue is not to be missed.”

Text: Jasmijn van Wijnen

An interview with Jeanine Tesori about Blue

A Black man in casual urban wear is looking straight at the audience. Without any further introduction, the audience is left to their own biases and faced with their expectations. The playing field is levelled. This is how Blue starts. With the opera, composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist and director Tazewell Thompson wanted to go against stereotypes to tell a new and real story about the impact of police brutality on an ordinary Black family.

An interview with Jeanine Tesori about Blue

You were commissioned to compose Blue by the Glimmerglass Festival. Why do you think they asked you specifically?
“Francesca Zambello, Artistic & General Director of the Glimmerglass Festival, knew that I’m interested in exploring contemporary issues. I was commissioned even before the death of George Floyd; after that, Black Lives Matter became a household name of course, but police brutality against Black people was an issue long before that happened. When I was asked to compose an opera about the role of inequality and race in modern-day America, I knew right away I wanted to do it. But I also knew I had to tread carefully, because I haven’t lived the experience. That same night, I saw a performance directed by Tazewell Thompson, whom I didn’t know at the time. What I didn’t know then either was what an excellent writer he is. When I talked to him about the project, we clicked immediately. He suggested writing the libretto and we spoke about it for weeks. As a Black man living in New York, he was full of stories, not just dramatic and heart-wrenching ones, but stories about happiness and love as well. Based on his life experiences, we decided to tell a tale about a Black family from Harlem, Tazewell’s own neighbourhood.”

Is Blue a true story based on Tazewell’s life?
“Tazewell drew inspiration from his own life as the son of a jazz musician to start with. And because police brutality was ubiquitous in the US at the time, we knew from the start that that had to be our topic. But I wanted to tell a different story from a new perspective because we’ve heard the story of a Black jazz musician many times before. I always ask myself whose story hasn’t been told yet. And so I suggested introducing a father who was a police officer himself. I was sure that Tazewell would be able to create a story full of nuance that would do justice to the complexity of that situation.”

How important is that nuance exactly?
“I think that these kinds of issues are usually reduced rather than distilled. When you reduce something, you don’t look at it from different perspectives and you don’t do justice to its complexity. You can’t afford to reduce the problem of police brutality: the US law enforcement system originated in a time when police officers returned enslaved people to their owners. We should be aware of that DNA because the way Black parents in the US raise their children to this day is an extension of this.

By introducing a Black police officer, who is also the father of a son, as a character, you bring social conflict into the home. We wanted to explore the situation of a Black man in blue: someone who risks his life every day and fights his own history as it were and then has to do battle with his own children who don’t understand him. Although Tazewell was initially highly averse to writing a police officer as a character, he felt that he had to do it, precisely because it affected him so deeply.”

Is opera the right art form for telling a story such as that of Blue?
“Opera is a versatile art form; there’s room for grandiose drama. The opera stage is home to epic tales. Blue is an epic tale. But it’s also a truthful story. We’re seeing an educated, successful and loving family – that happens to be Black. We wanted to avoid certain stereotypical depictions of Black people that you tend to see in movies or in the media. We felt that the opera had an almost Greek tragedy-like quality: the three girlfriends, the father’s three police officer buddies, the couple, the son and his destiny. I was fascinated by the idea of fate and asked myself: is the future of a Black American man predetermined at birth or does he actually have real choices in life?”

Componist Jeanine Tesori
Composer Jeanine Tesori | Photo: Rodolfo Martinez

What was your process like and how did you find a musical language to tell this story?
“Tazewell and I talked a lot, about the church and faith, about the police and their role in society, and about community. This was all before I wrote down a single note. That’s how I do it: I build a work from the ground up. And as soon as I start writing, the characters come to life. It’s impossible for me to compose a score for a ready-made libretto. The characters basically started to sing to me from the words Tazewell had written and the discussions we had about them. We wanted to avoid stereotypes, also in the music. When you see a Black choir in a church, you expect to hear Gospel music. But I wanted to compose music that had a more hymn-like quality.”

Can you elaborate?
“A hymn evokes a sense of community. The duets and trios are quite mundane, but the choral pieces sound much more like chorales, because this is when the community comes together. It’s not so much about the counterpoint here as it is about moving together and being in harmony. Especially when The Father sings ‘I lay my burden down, I ain’t gonna study war no more’, we feel the embrace of the community that will help pull him – and his wife – through. That’s exactly what we were after; we didn’t want the church to feel like a building or an institution, but we wanted it to be a community that’s there to offer its support.”

The opera premiered in 2019. The theme seems to have become more and more topical since then, also because of the death of George Floyd. Why is that?
“There are plenty of works that were greeted with a warm reception but have since fallen into oblivion. You can’t predict whether a piece will stand the test of time until time has actually passed. I’m sure things will be no different for Blue. The world rewrites itself and the same work can be perceived totally differently in a different time.

It keeps surprising me that, wherever we go to speak about the project, there are so many similarities. The subject matter is omnipresent. Blue is about the US and the police force specifically, but what it’s truly about is the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’, which exists in every culture. I hope that the people in the audience, whether they identify with the characters or not, will leave the theatre realising that what they saw was not just an opera performance, but a reflection of the real world.”

Text: Jasmijn van Wijnen
Translated by: Annie Tadema

‘You keepin’ it safe for the white man, not for me’

A brief look at the history of the police in America.

‘You keepin’ it safe for the white man, not for me’

The police in the United States have a long and chequered history. While they have always been surrounded by controversy, their racist attitudes have attracted much more attention in recent years with several high-profile incidents of police violence coupled with the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. Blue explores the difficult relationship between Black Americans and a police apparatus that is based on racial inequality. An examination of the history of the police in America, in particular its origins and early implementation, reveals how US law enforcement was built on racist systems. It illuminates the context of conflict in which the Father of the family in Blue operates as a Black police officer in America — a ‘Black man in blue’.

The history of the police apparatus in the US can be traced back to the days of slavery. In the South, where slavery was a central element in the economy, so-called ‘slave patrols’ were responsible for hunting down escaped enslaved people and taking them back to their owners. These patrols can be seen as the first publically funded police forces in the American South. The duties of the slave patrols included searching the homes of the enslaved, keeping them off the roads and breaking up gatherings of enslaved people. The patrols were known for their violence and ruthlessness. They were staffed by white men (and occasionally women) from all ranks of society, from the very poor to wealthy plantation owners who wanted to personally make sure their enslaved workers stayed in line.


The American Civil War and Reconstruction

The slave patrols continued to operate during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and they did not disappear entirely even after slavery was abolished. During the early Reconstruction era, various groups joined the former slave patrols in an effort to exert control over Black Americans. Groups such as the federal army, state defence troops and the Ku Klux Klan took over the tasks of the former slave patrols, acquiring a reputation for being even more violent than their predecessors. Over time, these entities increasingly resembled and functioned in the same way as some of America’s recently established police forces. According to historians, there was a virtually seamless transition from slave patrols to publically funded police forces in the Southern United States.

The Reconstruction era was filled with racism and the police used harsh measures to keep order. They were deployed to make white communities feel safe by intimidating Black communities and keeping Black Americans segregated from the white population. It is this history that led to the feeling that the police are not there for all Americans, a feeling that is still prevalent today among Black Americans. In the opera, the Son refers explicitly to this when he criticises his father for his job as a police officer, saying, “You keepin’ it safe for the white man, not for me.”


Jim Crow laws

A series of laws known as the Jim Crow laws came into force between 1880 and 1965, aimed at keeping Black and white communities segregated. Thanks in part to a loophole in the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery except as a punishment for crime, the police were able to detain Black Americans for violations of the racist Jim Crow laws — legislation that denied their fundamental rights as human beings. In this way, slavery lived on in American prisons. The Supreme Court decision in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, in which it ruled that segregation was permitted as long as White and Black communities still had access to the same resources, only served to encourage the police in keeping racism an integral part of their practices. Regrettably, this legal segregation remained intact for nearly one hundred years, until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.



The main police response to the Civil Rights movement was to obstruct and break up protests and demonstrations. Even now, long after that period, discriminatory practices continue to be embedded in the work of the police. The stop-and-frisk policy is a clear-cut example. Police officers are allowed to stop and search anyone without warning, and without the need for a clear reason. All that is required is a suspicion that someone is guilty of wrongdoing or that the person in question meets the description of a wanted suspect based on ethnic profiling. Such discriminatory practices serve to maintain the social hierarchy that arose in the days of slavery.

Rehanna Thelwell, Vuvu Mpofu en Aundi Marie Moore tijdens een repetitie van Blue
Rehanna Thelwell, Vuvu Mpofu and Aundi Marie Moore during a rehearsal of Blue | Photo: Melle Meivogel

The Dutch context

The history of the police in America is very different to that of the police in the Netherlands. The Dutch police apparatus does not have roots in slavery; rather, it was established in response to a wish on the part of kings and city fathers to be able to control rebellions and riots. In America, the numbers of deaths caused by police action are significantly higher than in The Netherlands. However a common tactic shared by the two countries is the use of ethnic profiling. In The Netherlands, ethnic profiling is used explicitly as an investigative method and is even automated in the Criminality Anticipation System (CAS). This system uses algorithms to tell the police where they should patrol to catch as many ‘criminals’ as possible. It is sometimes said that the Dutch police are becoming more Americanised in their approach (for example, with the recent introduction of the taser) after years of calls by politicians for more officers and tougher action. However, the two countries’ police apparatuses will never be entirely comparable precisely because they have such different histories.


The Talk

As the Son makes clear in Blue, the police forces in America do not seem like they are ‘for everyone’. While the Father is himself a police officer — and puts his own life on the line as a ‘Black man in blue’ for the safety of others — the Son rises up against what he sees as a racist police apparatus. While the Father thinks his son is risking danger in taking to the streets as a young Black man to protest, the Son feels he has no choice but to fight inequality. The Son’s death by a bullet from a white police officer shows both were right.

When the parents of Black sons express their concerns, this is commonly called ‘the talk’. This is the conversation Black parents in the US have with their children to try and prepare them for the fact that they may be treated differently — especially by the police. That the Father in Blue only uttered ‘The Talk’ in a moment of reflection, when the viewer already knows that he has failed to protect his son with these words, makes the moment in the opera all the more poignant.

Blue shows the human consequences and lethal impact of institutional racism. It reveals the DNA of America’s police through references, both subtle and less nuanced, to the history of slavery. Above all, it is a portrait of the people behind the horrific news stories of police violence. But the opera also carries a message of hope: the promise of a better future, one in which dreams have the chance to be fulfilled rather than being nipped cruelly in the bud.

Text: Jasmijn van Wijnen
Translated by: Clare Wilkinson



Stay alive.
That’s what you supposed to do.
You a Black boy.
A walking, moving target.
A Black boy.
Take off the hoodie…

Son, the light is turning amber. Run!
Run across the street. No!
Don’t run, Walk. Don’t walk.
Walk. Don’t walk. Don’t walk!

Don’t wear your ball cap backwards.
Don’t wear a hoodie.
Don’t carry shiny objects.
Don’t get a tattoo.
Don’t pierce your ears.
Don’t shave your head.
Don’t get an Afro.
Don’t make a fist.
Don’t sit on the curb.
Don’t sit on the hood of a car.
Don’t wear cornrows.
Don’t look the man in his eye.
Look the man in the eye.
Don’t make quick movements.|
Don’t put your hands in your pockets.
Don’t remove your shirt.
Don’t lie on the grass.
Don’t wear sunglasses!
Don’t spit.
Don’t chew.
Don’t laugh.


– The Father in Blue

‘The Soul of Food’: From Plantation Provision Ground to Today’s Kitchen Table

African American cuisine plays a starring role in Blue. The mother in the family that the opera revolves around is the proud owner of a soul food restaurant. She brings these traditional dishes into the home as well as a way to not only show her love, but to also ease the mounting tensions between her husband and son. Soul food has its origins on the plantations where enslaved people were forced to get creative with the leftover scraps of food given to them by the plantation owners.

‘The Soul of Food’: From Plantation Provision Ground to Today’s Kitchen Table

The 17th century saw the start of what has now become known as the Middle Passage trade. This triangular trade, which shipped African people to North and South America under the worst possible conditions, would continue well into the 19th century. Men, women and children were taken from interior Africa and transported to foreign shores as if they were cattle. They were shackled and loaded onto ships with hundreds of others to make the months-long journey across the Atlantic, only to be sold to plantation owners who would enslave them and put them to work at cotton and sugarcane plantations in North or South America.

As a result, people in Africa were living with the realistic threat of being captured by human traffickers. Women who were responsible for growing crops were planning for this eventuality and started carrying plants and vegetable seeds with them at all times because they did not know what their situation would be like if they were forced to make the Middle Passage. One thing they did know, however, was that they would need food. That is why they carefully braided rice seeds into their hair and smuggled other food supplies with them on board. This is how crops such as rice, cassava, sesame and okra ended up in the Western world.


Food and resistance

Once they had arrived in America, these women grew their crops at the plantations as food sources. Food was used as a mechanism of resistance, but also as a means of control by plantation owners, who would ration the food of their enslaved workers so that they were only given the bare minimum they needed to survive. They had to make do with only the cheapest ingredients and low-quality food with little nutritional value.

To create an illusion of freedom, plantation owners would allow their enslaved workers to supplement their meals with their own food. They were allowed to grow their own greens, but only within the confines of the plantation itself. This kept control securely in the hands of the plantation owner. But enslaved people were usually allotted poor-quality land, so they went against the system devised by their owners by secretly cultivating other plots of land which they tended to at night. This is where they grew their African crops. These gardens evolved into a symbol of resistance against systemic oppression.


Cooking with left-overs

Besides West African plants, animal products are also used heavily in traditional African American dishes. Enslaved people were definitely not given the best cuts of meat, but they got creative with what was available to them. Those were the parts of the animal that the plantation owner considered waste products: the head, ribs, legs and entrails. To mask the unpleasant taste of this meat, the enslaved people relied on the traditions of the West African kitchen; they smoked the meat and used powerful mixes of peppers, spices and vinegar. This is how they created chitterlings, which is known as the caviar of people of colour, from the intestines of pigs and how they invented spare ribs. But they also transformed pork legs, neck bones and gizzards into fully fledged dishes. These dishes still play an important role in African American cuisine, either as a main course or as a way to season food such as greens, dried beans and peas.

To waste nothing, they also enjoyed pot liquor, the liquid left behind after boiling greens. By using this liquid, which would otherwise be thrown away, they hoped to increase their vitamin intake, which was low due to the food rationing. Cast iron cornbread, a popular side dish in African American cuisine to this day, was typically used to dip into the pot liquor.


Living and surviving

What started as a necessity to cook more nutrient-rich foods evolved into an actual tradition that is very important to many African Americans today. By preparing these traditional dishes, they remember and identify with the challenges that forced their enslaved ancestors to get creative. African American cuisine connects continents and cultures and evokes a direct and tangible memory of the colonial past. The care, love and resilience of Black women resonate in the tradition of cooking soul food. And that powerful message is reflected in the epilogue to the opera, in which the mother feeds her family with the food of her ancestors.

Author: Naomi Teekens
Translated by: Annie Tadema

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