Sankara Harouna

Sankara Harouna, a local artist and Kentucky Opera Chorister, debuted the role of Derrick Wheatt in Cincinnati Opera’s world premiere production of Blind Injustice almost one year ago. The opera, more than ever, is an important story to tell. We sat down with Sankara to talk about his experience with the production, and with the opera community as a young black artist.

Kentucky Opera: In 2019, almost a year ago, you performed in Cincinatti Opera’s world premiere of Blind Injustice, an opera that tells the story of real people freed by the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP). OIP has freed 28 people serving over 500 years in prison collectively. What is the opera about?

Sankara Harouna: Blind Injustice follows the lives of six exonerees who were wrongfully imprisoned: Nancy Smith, Laurese Glover, Derrick Wheatt, Eugene Johnson, Clarence Elkins, and Ricky Jackson. These are real people wrapped up in a corrupt system. Imagine being accused of a crime you did not commit. It’s completely nerve wracking. But for a lot of Americans, this is a reality. This issue is not just a Black issue, it’s an American issue — and the time is now to fix it.

As I was on the journey of the production, I had to take several moments to myself and ask, “How can this happen?” Then I heard Evans Mirageas say, “When police and prosecutors stick irrationally to a story they concocted; when they coerce false testimony; when they cherry pick evidence; when they use discredited forensic science to jerry-rig a dirty case; when they don’t have a decent defense…that’s how this happens!”

Cases are different. People are different. But the results are the same. Wrongful convictions.

Blind Injustice

Deborah Nansteel and Sankara Harouna in Blind Injustice. Photo: Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera.

KO: You sang the role of Derrick Wheatt, one of the Cleveland Three. Did you meet the East Cleveland Three?

SH: I got a chance to meet the East Cleveland Three. I remember them telling stories of growing up and just kicking it. They were some fly dudes growing up in the 90s. And you know in any friend nucleus there’s always room for a little healthy competition on who can be the flyest. But as I mentioned before, the calm these gentlemen have is profoundly moving — especially Eugene, whose God-spirit can fill a room. To endure incarceration as young people and come out intact is remarkable. They literally grew up in prison. Their entire lives were snatched from them…it’s astounding.

Derrick Wheatt was a young man who was wrongfully convicted of murder along with his two friends Laurese Glover and Eugene Johnson. I had the privilege of meeting these men. Derrick, whose character I played, is a man of few words and has an amazing calm to him. When you think of someone who is honorable and noble, you think of Derrick. He is by far one of the most grounded people I have ever met. Talking to all three of them gave me a sense of hope and peace and a tighter connection spiritually. Just the thought of spending 20 years in prison for a crime you did not commit, and coming out of it all because your faith kept you intact, is utterly amazing.

KO: How did you prepare for the role?

SH: I started to prepare for the role by jumping into the score and trying to figure out who Derrick is and understanding the story. I have always been driven by what the music tells me and I love the framework the composer Scott Davenport Richards gave us. He was able to incorporate many elements of the Black experience through music. Jazz, gospel, and hip-hop, just to name a few, are colored throughout this piece.

But even with all this beautiful music, nothing was falling on me, and I couldn’t get past the simple lines, dots, and stems on the page. Until one day, they sent out the final version of the score. I noticed a whole scene had been added. I was in terror. Where did this come from? What am I going to do?  The new scene was entitled “Visiting Day.” This is the scene between Derrick and his mother [performed by mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel], as they talk during visitation.

As I began reading the text, there was an over-pouring of love and anguish. This scene depicted the harsh reality not only of what the imprisoned go through, but also their families outside of prison. There is a deep connection of a mother’s love for her son, no matter what the circumstances may be. At that moment, everything, everything clicked for me when I thought about the love of my mother and the love of my friends.

That’s when the work as a whole really began for me, and everything came together. It transcended notes on a page at that point. It moved to an understanding of humanity and really sharing emotion and sentiment. When I looked in the mirror, I then realized Derrick and I are no different. This is not just his story. It is my story, and the stories of so many who look just like me. Telling Derrick’s story allowed me to tell the story of so many others.

KO: How was the experience for you personally?

SH: This experience was great and challenging all at the same time. There are so many levels of emotion when you are dealing with a piece that is telling a story as heavy as this one. Towards the end of the production, it became emotionally taxing, and I needed some time to decompress after it was all over. My fellow cast members and I fully dived into the people whose lives we were playing. This art is not easy, but it’s a part of the journey we love. In becoming characters, it grants us the space to discover who we are through them. That is beautiful to me.

Another great and fun aspect of the experience is that I was a part of a world premiere opera! When you think of most of the works that all of the opera houses are doing, the composers and librettists are long dead. You can’t jump into the minds of them directly. Only through education and study can we make decisions to be as authentic and true to what they intended.

With this, opera both composer and librettist are still alive. Having access to them right there in the room is amazing. I can get every intention and idea from them and be true to the score to bring the whole thing to life.

This debut role has been life-changing moment for me. My name is now forever a part of a powerful production. Having the chance to work with so many beautiful people and gifted musicians was exhilarating. This was my debut with Cincinnati Opera, and I couldn’t have asked for a better moment in my life.

KO: What was the reaction from audience members

 SH: There were so many reactions from audience members. Some happy, some sad, but overwhelmingly a sense of, “I didn’t know.” When you look at opera audiences as a whole, it’s disproportionately an older, White audience. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just saying that’s the demographic that shows up. So it made sense to me that these folks might be unaware of this issue because it’s not a part of their lives.

I remember when I attended the final dress rehearsal of Sherlock Holmes at The Shakespeare Theater. Morgan Smith [baritone] and his wife, Amy, invited me. (These are two of the most amazing people you will ever meet. They take care of little ol’ me, and Morgan is a damn good cook too! I am blessed to have them in my life.)

After the show, I was in the lobby getting ready to leave when an older couple came up to me and said, “Hey, are you the guy who was in the show?” He went on to mention that he had come to event Cincinnati Opera the previous night about Blind Injustice and was moved to tears. When people have that response, it means we are doing the right thing. We are in the business of changing hearts and minds.

Sankara Harouna with Terrence Chin-Loy and Miles Wilson-Toliver in “Blind Injustice.” Photo: Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera

KO: You mentioned the East Cleveland Three were there. What did they think of the show?

SH: The East Cleveland Three were all excited that their story was being told. When Derrick saw the show, he didn’t know the scene between him and his mother had been added, and it brought him to tears.

KO: Many opera companies, including Kentucky Opera, have put out statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Black man in the opera community, what is your response to that?

SH: It’s so crazy you brought this up, because I was unaware a statement had been published by Kentucky Opera until my mom sent it to me. Once I read it, I felt a sense of belonging. In times of strife and struggle, I know I work for a company that stands by me and is not about lip service. Kentucky Opera has been overwhelmingly supportive of me, not just career-wise, but also supportive of me as a person. I’m not just another voice, and that’s a great feeling to have. From the top down there is nothing but love.

Kentucky Opera is a beautiful family. I can’t even call them an extended family because they are so engrained in my life. I can call any of them up and ask for advice and counsel. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive organization.

As a Black man in opera I have been welcomed into the flock. I can’t speak to the struggles of the past on a personal note, but I am fully aware that this industry has come a long way. It hasn’t been an easy road for Blacks in opera, but there are great opportunities for Black singers in opera today.

When you talk about inclusion, what does that really look like? That is the question we are living through, and we are still finding the answers to today.

KO: What do you think Opera companies can do to help foster change and understanding of systemic racism?

SH: The one thing I love about opera and theater is that it allows us to raise hard questions about our society and ourselves. How will we change? I want to be a part of that change.

Opera companies can help change the world by continuing to produce shows that tell the story of the marginalized and disenfranchised. Opera companies can also give us the voice to tell our stories in interesting ways. We have to make sure our faces are seen and our voices are heard.

There is this concept that occurs over and over in Afrofuturism that basically says, the past is always with us, it affects us, and has the power to make us stronger if we know how to use it properly. West African cultures explore this idea though the Sankofa Bird. This symbol, with its body walking forward and its head looking backwards, means no matter what we carry, the past is with us as we go into the future. That is the beauty of being Black. Knowing where we have come from to get to the present and using that information to drive us into the future. Understanding what the past means and doing what we can to move forward. Far too often society tries to negate the past for the present. We treat it like it’s some taboo topic, and we’re not even given the chance to view ourselves in any futuristic light. We must start this discussion, and it starts with the arts. When we have a voice and a platform, we must act. We can’t be idle and passive. It is our duty as artists to spearhead this change and change the lives of people around us. This is the first step in moving forward; this is where we must begin.