Nkeiru Okoye '92 Earns Guggenheim Fellowship for Composition

Award supports completion of an opera that explores the experience of Black women.

May 19, 2021

Erich Burnett

Nkeiru Okoye.
Photo credit: courtesy Nkeiru Okoye

A March 2021 article in The New York Times noted that the work of Nkeiru Okoye “would make a fitting grand opening for an opera company’s post-pandemic relaunch.”

Even without the accolade, the New York-based composer finds herself sitting on a full slate of commissions likely to tie her up for the next four years. Soon she might be booked through the decade.

A 1992 graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, Okoye has been named a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for 2021. The honor will support the creation of A Truth Before Their Eyes, an opera Okoye has been developing for several years, which chronicles the experiences of two Black women who struggle to be heard in their small community, where Black Lives Matter garners headlines while everyday incidences of racial bias continue with alarming frequency.

A former composition student who also immersed herself in Africana studies at Oberlin, Okoye often explores nuances of American history through her works. Among them are the 2005 narrative piece for orchestra The Journey of Phillis Wheatley, about the first Black woman poet to be published, and the 2014 opera Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom, for which she wrote her first libretto. That opera was copresented by Oberlin Opera Theater and Cleveland Opera Theater for five performances in early 2016. (It also happens to be the particular work referenced by the NY Times article in March.)

Other Okoye projects arrived as responses to pivotal moments in the nation’s history: Her 2002 composition Voices Shouting Out followed the attacks of September 11, 2001; Invitation to a Die-In (2017) emerged in the wake of the police shooting of Trayvon Martin.

But if many of Okoye’s creations tend to rise out of moments of profound grief, the works themselves more often convey themes of empowerment rather than despair.

That’s not likely to be the case with A Truth Before Their Eyes. The story centers on the lives and unlikely friendship of two highly educated, professional Black protagonists: an acclaimed artist turned college professor, and the neuropsychiatrist responsible for her care after a misdiagnosis leads to her confinement in a psychiatric ward.

“The story is contemporary, and yet it’s timeless,” says Okoye, who will write the libretto as well as the music.

In 2017, Opera America asked Okoye about feminist themes in Harriet Tubman. “It’s not really a feminist opera," she said. "It’s simply about women.” The same might be said of A Truth. Its narrative is inspired by actual events and experiences of friends and other acquaintances of Okoye—including her own ordeal of suffering a stroke shortly before the premiere of Harriet Tubman, and the endless hurdles she faced in navigating the health-care system through her extensive rehabilitation.

“There are so few stories about contemporary Black women, and those that there are tend to be based on stereotypes and not really understanding,” says Okoye. “It’s not having walked in those steps. We’re not all on food stamps, not growing up in the projects, not all being abused by our husbands. And so I’m looking to make these characters more alive.”

Unlike the vague character sketches common in opera, Okoye has painstakingly fashioned highly detailed descriptions of each role in A Truth, from the Black characters who buck stereotypes to the white ones who don’t.

“My goal with A Truth is not to belabor a point about the existence of overt racism in this country,” she asserted in a statement to Guggenheim about the project. “Rather, I refocused to answer ‘How does this happen in our society?’ It is the question asked whenever another unarmed Black man is shot, but not as often with the more mundane—the everyday interactions that lead to failures in our system: education, employment, and in this case, medical treatment.

“While this will be an uncomfortable piece to experience, it aims to provoke sincere discussion and reflection into the ways in which we all contribute to the systemic inequities in society.”

Okoye has not established a timetable for the completion of her opera, but is in talks with possible commissioning groups.

Jonathon Field, a longtime associate professor of opera theater at Oberlin, directed the 2016 production of Harriet Tubman and came away profoundly affected by the experience.

“When I first got Nkeiru's Harriet Tubman, I was just inspired,” he says, noting its emphasis on both popular and theatrical music. Field’s production was performed in churches across Northeast Ohio and also in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel. “The response was electric,” he says. “Audiences were deeply moved, and the work did what opera should do: get a visceral reaction. I hope we can present more of her operas here.”

The Guggenheim Foundation was established in 1925 by U.S. Senator Simon Guggenheim and wife Olga in honor of their late son. Guggenheim Fellowships support the endeavors of accomplished scholars and artists throughout the arts. Okoye is one of 184 recipients of a Guggenheim Fellowship for 2021 and one of 13 composers to be honored, including Oberlin alumna Katherine Young ’03, a composer, musician, and faculty member at Emory University.

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