Explore Omar: Related Events
Discover what’s happening around Chapel Hill in the lead-up to Omar.
As the North Carolina premiere of Omar draws near, we want to keep you up-to-date on all the opportunities to learn more about this sweeping new work. Together with our partners, we’re proud to present a slate of programs that dive deep into the social, political, economic, and historical context of the performance. To learn what’s on the way, click here, or read the descriptions below.
CPA and MDC invite you to:
The State of the South, Omar ibn Said:
A Conversation Between Dr. Youssef Carter and Dr. William Spriggs
- When: Tuesday, Feb. 21, 5–6:30 PM
- Where: CURRENT Studio
Omar ibn Said’s story illuminates the historical and geographical relationships between Black Muslim religious empowerment, forced and chosen migration, and labor. As we think of the future of the South—as well as its present—understanding this history is essential to imagining economic systems rooted in equity.
Join us for a dialogue between Dr. Youssef Carter, an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and the Kenan Rifai Fellow in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Dr. William Spriggs, the former Chair of the Department of Economics at Howard University and Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO. This dialogue will be moderated by MDC Senior Program Director Kerri Forrest. Together, we will explore and bear witness to the historical conditions of slavery faced by Ibn Said, while envisioning how we might realize systems that value humanity.
Registration is free! Click here to register.
CPA and the UNC Department of Music invite you to:
Performing & Imagining the American South “Open Classroom” on Omar
Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels in conversation with Dr. Naomi André
- When: Thursday, Feb. 23, 11:15 AM–12:15 PM
- Where: Moeser Auditorium in Hill Hall
The university community is welcome to join the students in Performing and Imagining the American South (IDST 121) for a conversation between Rhiannon Giddens, Michael Abels, and Dr. Naomi André on Omar, music, and the American South.
Dr. Naomi André is the David G. Frey Distinguished Professor of Music at UNC-Chapel Hill.
No registration required.
CPA, UNC Press, and the UNC African Studies Center invite you to:
“What is the ‘Autobiogaphy’ of Omar ibn Said?” with Dr. Carl W. Ernst and Dr. Mbaye Lo
- When: Thursday, Feb. 23, 5:30–7 PM
- Where: FedEx Global Education Center, Nelson Mandela Auditorium
Omar ibn Said (1770-1863), a West African Muslim scholar, was sold into slavery in America, where he spent over half a century enslaved to a prominent North Carolina family. He left behind a small collection of documents in Arabic that remain poorly understood. This presentation is based on Dr. Ernst and Dr. Lo’s book, I Cannot Write My Life: Islam, Arabic, and Slavery in Omar ibn Said’s America, forthcoming from UNC Press in August 2023. Why, at the beginning of his 1831 “Autobiography,” did Ibn Said announce “I cannot write my life”? What is the significance of his quotations from Islamic theological and mystical texts, which have escaped notice until now? Ernst and Lo will address these questions and more. Join us to learn more about their major reassessment of this important witness to the presence of Islam and Arabic at the beginning of America’s history.
Moderated by Mark Simpson-Vos, the Editorial Director for UNC Press.
Mbaye Lo is an Associate Professor of the Practice of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies & International Comparative Studies at Duke University.
Carl W. Ernst is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Registration is free! Click here to register.
Up Close and Personal with Omar ibn Said Materials
Instruction Sessions in Wilson Special Collections Library
- Register for Session 1: Monday, Feb. 27, 9–10 AM
- Register for Session 2: Wednesday, Mar. 1, 3–4 PM
- Register for Session 3: Thursday, Mar. 2, 12–1 PM
Where: Wilson Library, Room 901
For folks who were able to see the Omar opera or are simply curious about its inspiration, we are offering three opportunities for our Carolina campus community to get up close and personal with documents and other materials related to Omar ibn Said. Guests who sign up online will have a chance to see the original 19th century artifacts featuring or written by Omar himself. In addition, guests will have the opportunity to speak with UNC reference librarians and learn even more ways to engage with Omar’s story and special collections at UNC Libraries.
For information and tickets to the performance, please visit our event page.
A Community in Motion
Local dancers reflect on involvement in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s What Problem?
The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s What Problem? is intensely concerned with the concept of community. Again and again, the production probes the possibilities and limitations of the concept, drawing from an array of sources, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” It’s a gale-force reckoning with our current historical moment, replete with cutting literary commentary, rousing speeches, expert choreography, and insistent, pulsing beats. Dancers swirl at the heart of it all, both raucous and tentative, offering audiences a potent glimpse of the American polity in motion.
Achieving this effect requires a uniquely community-driven approach. Earlier this fall, when What Problem? came to Chapel Hill, such an approach was on full display. In advance of the performance dates, the company and Carolina Performing Arts put out a call for dancers from around the Research Triangle. The dozens who answered this call soon became integral parts of the production.
In the week leading up to the two performances, these dancers—known as the Community Movers—joined the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company for a series of rehearsals. To get the inside scoop on the Community Mover experience, we asked several dancers to share their thoughts on the rehearsals, as well as their reflections on the production. Here are their stories.
Note: Killian Manning’s testimonial was collected on the week of rehearsals, prior to the performances. The other three testimonials were collected after the performances occurred.
“Thanks to Carolina Performing Arts and Amanda Graham, I began the adventure of a lifetime, one of those circle-of-life events that has this post-punk, pseudo-cynical grrrrl absolutely GIDDY. For this whole week, I’ve been rehearsing from 6–9 PM with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company as a community member, culminating in performances on Friday and Saturday night at Memorial Hall. I’ve been following Bill’s amazing work since that mind-blowing first moment at the American Dance Festival in 1988 . . . which eventually led to my dissertation: ‘Performing Utopian Visions: Art(iculation) in the Age of AIDS’ (2004). Bill T.’s Still/Here is Chapter 3. My excitement through the entire process has been uncontainable, and my gratitude for the lessons learned is overflowing! Belonging to a community that shares my enthusiasm for his genius, sharing rehearsal and stage space with him and his wonderful dancers, being a part of this brilliant production . . . it just does not get any better.”
“Working with Bill T. Jones as a Community Mover was a rare and thrilling opportunity for me, thanks to a friend who forwarded the original email [invite]. My dance background was in classical ballet rather than modern dance; although I hung up my pointe shoes long ago, I have stayed in shape through dance aerobics, strength training, and yoga. Even in my 70s, I had no trouble keeping up with the other movers, mentally or physically.
Most of the movers were associated with local dance programs and therefore had friends within the group. I knew no one, but folks were friendly and casual. Shane and Jacoby were excellent coaches; Janet was very pleasant to work with; and Bill T. himself was a magical presence. It was a pleasure and an honor to work with this dance company. My friends who attended had nothing but praise for this highly original program. Other than some pulled muscles during the chaotic rock-throwing scene, I believe we all had a favorable and memorable experience and would do it again.”
“I learned about this opportunity from my good friend who works at UNC. My favorite part was getting to know the dancers and the musicians. They are an amazing group of people, and it was wonderful to have a week with them. By the end of the week, we were speaking like friends, sharing stories of our lives together. I also loved being part of such a diverse group of community members. My thoughts on the production: it was such fun to be part of it. There was so much going on. The musicians were breathtaking. Hearing the words, “How does it feel to be a problem?” in song gave me goosebumps. It was astounding that in three days, we learned what we needed to do, and were ready for dress rehearsal and performances. Shane and Jacoby were wonderful teachers and coaches. They were patient and clear. They helped us take risks and be specific yet spontaneous and to explode with emotion and action when it was time. I learned that dancing is good for everyone, and through dance we can make messages come alive. I grew up in New York City, and when we were milling in a tight circle [as part of the performance], I recalled the tension of living in New York, and I also remembered the fear I felt when I saw police barricades. The way black people are treated in this country felt alive and visceral to me through the dance.”
Spring 2023: Digital Brochure
This spring, CPA invites you to rediscover, reengage, and reconnect with in-person arts experiences! This season’s lineup features an array of exciting performances, including classical and jazz concerts, drama exploring the human condition and the long-anticipated North Carolina premiere of Omar—the powerful new opera from Southern Futures Artist-in-Residence Rhiannon Giddens and acclaimed composer Michael Abels (“Nope,” “Get Out”).
From new works and partnerships to returning crowd-pleasers and collaborators, CPA’s spring programming celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and reminds us of art’s ability to drive vital conversations and spark joy. For a glimpse of what’s to come, check out the digital brochure below.
$10 student tickets available. 15% discount for UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC Health faculty/staff. 10% discount for active or retired military personnel and patrons 65 and older. Additional discounts available for select performances. Find discounts and other ticketing information here.
We look forward to seeing you in spring 2023 and beyond!
Catching up with Rhiannon Giddens
An illuminating afternoon with the Southern Futures Artist-in-Residence
It’s been a busy year for Rhiannon Giddens. Since finishing her propulsive new opera, Omar — set to make its North Carolina debut this spring — the Southern Futures Artist-in-Residence hasn’t stopped moving. The past few months have been especially hectic, with trips to New York, Los Angeles and Dublin, as well as other, more far-flung locations. Between these events, as well as the recent launch of her new children’s book, “Build a House,” moments of rest must have been hard to come by.
Fortunately, last week’s visit to Chapel Hill gave Giddens a chance to regroup and reconnect with her North Carolina roots. Though the schedule was predictably packed, she had the chance to meet with community members and Carolina Performing Arts staff to discuss opportunities for collaboration. Early in the week, she also spent some time diving into the Louis Round Wilson Library’s robust archives in search of new material.
Giddens’ trip culminated on Wednesday, October 19, when she stopped by Epilogue Books to promote her new children’s book. Seated before the audience, a banjo at her side, she read from “Build a House,” an alternately harrowing and uplifting story of a Black family’s resilience in the face of sorrow and dispossession. Paired with painter Monica Mikai’s striking illustrations, Giddens’ words ably captured the attention of both the children and the adults in attendance. And, as a special treat, Giddens performed her song of the same name, composed for the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth in collaboration with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
After the reading and performance, Giddens stuck around to sign books and take questions from the audience. During the Q&A she spoke on a wide range of topics, from “Build a House” to her long journey through the music world, often with refreshing honesty.
“I didn’t pick up any instruments until I was 23,” she told the audience, when asked about her musical development. “I was bad for a while. That was helpful, I think. It’s good to break yourself down to the basics, good to be willing to suck.”
As one might expect, the audience was especially keen to hear about the the making of Omar. Giddens was open and authoritative on the subject. Again and again, she underlined the collaborative nature of the project, and she discussed the work of Michael Abels, her co-composer, in glowing terms. Though she admitted that composing an opera for the first time was a significant challenge, she said Abels eased much of this challenge, helping her to stick to a more structured process. In addition, she spoke of her thrill at the idea that the form might be more familiar than she’d initially expected. Only, in Omar, she said, “the whole orchestra is a banjo.”
Toward the end of the Q&A, Giddens took a moment to discuss Omar ibn Said, the opera’s historical inspiration. She was quick to note that, though the opera contains many elements pulled from ibn Said’s 1831 autobiography, it takes a greater interest in the enslaved West African scholar’s internal, spiritual journey than it does in bare biographical facts. She stressed the need for further exploration of ibn Said’s whole story, given its cross-cultural connections. “This story should be told from multiple vantage points,” she said. “Omar is just me trying to find one way — my way — through the story.”
Here’s hoping more artists of Giddens’ caliber take up the challenge.
Intersectional Theatre: Presenting a Bilingual Prince Hamlet
Our residency with Why Not Theatre spotlights their groundbreaking approach
Ahead of this Friday’s performance of Prince Hamlet, Why Not Theatre joined Carolina Performing Arts for a week-long residency. This included an in-depth discussion with actor and American Sign Language (ASL) translator Dawn Jani Birley about the company’s intersectional approach to William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy.
Throughout the conversation with CPA and PlayMakers Repertory Company staff, Birley highlighted her conscious rebellion against the idea that mere inclusion should serve as a true end goal. For Birley, inclusion feels too limited, as it fails to encompass the full range of her capabilities. By contrast, an intersectional approach allows Birley and the rest of the company to explore the multiple dimensions of Shakespeare’s characters through new lenses of language, gender and ethnicity. In doing so, Why Not Theatre challenges traditional notions of who exactly gets to tell these stories.
“I want to use my platform as an artist to break down the systemic barriers and open new avenues in the theatre. I hope work like this can be a part of that.”Dawn Jani Birley
Director Ravi Jain’s retelling shows us the world through the eyes of Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend, as portrayed by Birley. Within this framework, we come to understand that Horatio’s deafness is just one of many aspects that inform his perception of that world. Combining English and ASL, the production offers a bold reimagining aimed at hearing and Deaf audiences alike.
This week’s residency also included a public pre-performance discussion with director Vivienne Benesch and actor Tia James of PlayMakers Repertory Company, which will present its own take on the Bard’s famous play in January 2023. The primary topic of discussion stemmed from a common thread: Both productions will feature a woman in the lead role. Cast members spoke about these challenges and opportunities with refreshing candor, offering a rare inside look at the performances to come.
Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet will be presented at Memorial Hall this Friday, October 7. The PlayMakers Repertory Company’s performance of Hamlet will run from January 25 through February 12. CPA audiences can save 20% with promo code DENMARK.