I was eight or nine when it happened. Words got hold of me. I spent every moment bookishly exploring alternative realities, devouring ideas and learning new ways of engaging with life, which led me to fantastical, limitless worlds. More than any heart-to-heart, written words assured my pre-teen, anguished self that weeping might endure for a night, but joy awaited in the morning. Words compelled me to explore the human condition and make an unflinching assessment of my own. Words drove me to put feelings to paper that could transfigure the minds of other black girls searching for meaning. I was destined to become a writer.
But, as the offspring of an opera-singing mother and a father who dreamed of being the first Black tenor at The Met, I also had “a voice” and, in the jumble of competing interests and adolescent adversities, I capitulated. Instead of planting a flag at Northwestern University’s school of journalism or staking a diva claim to its conservatory, I majored in the much less respectable field of broadcasting and took voice lessons on the side.
A year and a half covering sludge stories and backwoods’ feuds as a general assignment reporter and occasional weekend anchor in a market so forsaken the channel was off the dial – I’m talking UHF – diminished my enthusiasm for a career in journalism. I escaped from that small town, literally, to the Big Apple just as the first black Miss America was crowned. Her old-soul rendition of Happy Days Are Here Again cleared my vision. I was destined for the stage.
I sang at open mikes, in cabarets and musicals until I found my way to opera. There was healing, courage, agency and identity in the relationship I developed with my voice. For many years, it was my passport, but always, always, always, I sang in service to the words. During the summer I studied with the great Rigoletto, Robert McFerrin, I heard him retort to adoring fans, “I know I have a beautiful voice…but did I SAY anything?” Bathing in the sensuousness of his sound was the listener’s prerogative. His responsibility – and mine – was to deliver to the audience – through the words -- a deeper understanding of their own flawed magnificence.
The opportunity to use my words to tell the story of a most magnificent American hero crystallized the purpose of my passions. It seems the two were never so much competitors as twin souls developing in wisdom at their own pace until ready to merge.
Now, as a collaborator and creator of musical art meant to inspire and transform, my writer soul and my singer soul are peacefully one.