To Viola Desmond, 1946 (2019)
Instrumentation: Contralto and Piano
Vocal Range: Eb3-Gb5, ossia G3-Gb5
Text by: Carolyn Nakagawa
Availability: Downloadable PDF
To Viola Desmond, 1946 is a setting of Carolyn Nakagawa’s poem “In the Dark.” Subtitled “Olivia de Havilland to Viola Desmond, 1946,” the poem presents a fantastical take on a vignette from Canadian civil rights history. In 1946 Viola Desmond, a black businesswoman, was dragged from a movie theater for refusing to leave a seat in an area designated for whites. She was then convicted of tax evasion for the one-cent difference in ticket price for that seat. The conviction stood throughout Desmond’s life, though she eventually was pardoned more than fifty years after her death.
Nakagawa’s poem focuses on the moments surrounding Desmond’s arrest at the theater. She imagines the reactions of Olivia de Havilland—the star of the movie Desmond was watching—as her on-screen image witnessed the fateful event. The singer takes on de Havilland’s role, addressing Desmond with empathy as she is removed from the theater.