“We think of community engagement as new for musical institutions, but Graham was thinking in those terms a long time ago and building them into the structure of the piece,” said Caplan. “It’s a really different way to think about what it means to be a composer on the most fundamental level.”
Graham, the daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal minister, married Du Bois in 1951, and moved to Ghana with him in 1960, never to return permanently to the U.S. She died in 1977, 14 years after her husband.
“Tom-Tom” arrived at the Schlesinger in 2001 when Radcliffe and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research (now the Hutchins Center) jointly acquired Graham Du Bois’ papers from her son, David.
“Her husband was such a towering figure and she supported his work, but she had this whole career before, during, and after her life with him,” said Ellen M. Shea, head of research services at the Schlesinger. “She was an extraordinary combination of artist and activist, and her collection documents a rich and multifaceted life.”
Scholars aren’t sure why “Tom-Tom” vanished from the stage after its successful Cleveland debut. Caplan, who is writing her dissertation on 20th-century African-American opera, cited many factors, including the Depression. But she believes the opera’s permanent sidelining was more a result of race, gender, and politics.
“Opera companies also would have been hesitant to put on a work by a black female composer affiliated with the communist party,” she said. “For what a remarkable work it was as the first opera by an African-American woman, and performed in such an incredible way, there’s a limited amount of scholarly work and clearly more needs to be done. ‘Porgy and Bess’ gets performed again and again and again, and it’s a white man’s version of black life. That a black woman’s vision of black life has not been performed says a lot about the state of opera.”
A revival of the opera could happen with a small-scale company open to adventure, said Caplan. AMOC’s Tines hoped performing the excerpts at Radcliffe last month might inspire further interest in the work.
“Being an African-American vocalist, it’s unique and exciting to present it to an audience for the notion of exposure and to ask: What does it mean to look at possible parts of the canon that aren’t part of the canon?”