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

This story is republished with permission from The Birmingham Times

During a rehearsal at the Red Mountain Theater on a recent evening, Allison Sanders prepares for the opening night of Opera Birmingham’s ‘dwb (driving while black)’, a one-act performance that explores the 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 silent – until the rehearsal begins and her powerful voice brings the whole theater to life.

For Sanders, who is a mother to 4-year-old son Noah, the rehearsals can be overwhelming as she can relate to black mothers as their children grow up.

“There’s a moment in the opera where the father dies, and that resonates with me,” she said. “My own son’s father passed away, and that reminds me of him. Opera has some very interesting parallels that made this show more real than I ever imagined. It is said that art imitates life.

A three-day dwb (driving while black) race (Friday 27th January at 7.30pm, Saturday 28th January at 7.30pm and Sunday 29th January at 2.30pm) will take place at the Red Mountain Theater Arts Campus Discovery Theater in Birmingham city centre.

In the central story, the audience meets the Mother in her house. The dangerous outside world, however, is beyond the mother’s control, and anxiety rises 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 her boys who look like her. “I hope someone’s mind has changed and their perspective is a little different when they leave the show,” she said. “It’s not just about being a good show. I want your heart to be changed. It is the driving force.

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

Wolfe-Hughes contacted Sanders about the opera two years ago when they were working on another performance.

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

Sanders has sung with Opera Birmingham for the past few years and Wolfe-Hughes said he’s wanted her on a show for some time.

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

dream hunt

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 recalls going to Corinth Baptist Church in the Ensley neighborhood at least three days a week and all day Sunday.

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

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

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

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

Sanders recalls a time when she was supposed to give an Easter speech at church, “but instead I got up and started singing a song 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 Reverend Milton Brunson. It was my first solo in church.

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

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

“I attribute everything to her. I tell her all the time that she really put me there. Even though she never really understood, … she always said ‘Sure’ or ‘Go for it’. If I wanted to do tap dancing for a week, she would sign me up for tap dancing lessons. The thing is, she wanted me to be better, and I wanted to be better.

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

A new start

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

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

She got involved in theater groups, started taking singing lessons and participated in competitions every weekend.

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

At troupe meetings on Saturdays, Sanders recalls learning the importance of stage presence.

“Our group was called Teens in Theater,” she said. “Our acting coach was always yelling, ‘Hold on. He said, ‘That’s how you work a scene.’ »

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

“I was in a cat costume complete with makeup and vocals. It was my favorite song to sing over and over every weekend to qualify me for bigger competitions,” said Sanders, who would go on to win the Miss South Fair pageant, a regional pageant held at the Memphis Fairgrounds in Memphis, U.S. during which Southern acts sing to win cash prizes if they make it to the finals.

“I kept losing every year,” she continued. “I would go to the semi-finals and then I would lose, [but] I loved being surrounded by all these talented people. … Being around other creators was so much fun for me. I met so many friends from different studios that I’m still friends with now.

At 15, Sanders found a new singing teacher and switched to opera.

“That’s when I won the competition after all these years,” she said. “I did a French song called ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ when I was 17. [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 tune that most 17-year-olds shouldn’t sing. I sang it in all my college auditions, and people were like, ‘You shouldn’t sing that.’

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

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

The new voice teacher

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

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

“[Janice Aiken] said, ‘Sing that art song’ and ‘I was like I wasn’t singing that Italian song,'” Sanders said. “It stuck, and it fit like a glove to my voice. … So, from the age of 15, I had the classical music bug.

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

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

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

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

“My voice has always been mature, but I’ve never been of age, so some things would be inappropriate. … I ended up being part of this set of three white singers and three black singers. It was very hard. [The Black and white singers] should 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 them “End Segregation Now”. I remember the tears that formed [in my eyes]. It was emotional, but that was our job.

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

“It was just in my voice,” she said. “Even though this show was tough, there’s something really special about this family that you create with every show, being on stage with all these people who love it as much as you do.”

“dwb (driving while black)” premieres 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 Theater Arts Campus Discovery Theater in downtown Birmingham. For more information, visit

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