It was 2004 when State District Judge Mark Davidson discovered a significant file from the Harris Country district clerk’s office while trying to preserve a plethora of old, historic documents. The case was that of Emeline, a young, enslaved woman who won her freedom in the 1800s after suing her captor.
Now, 12 years later, the Houston Grand Opera and Ensemble Theatre team up to tell her story in What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline. The chamber opera focuses on illustrating the raw and factual events of Emeline’s journey in regaining her liberty, while also providing an in-depth look at a monumental event that occurred in the city—which many may not be even informed about. “It is amazing that the story had been buried, so to speak, and more people didn’t know about it,” says director Eileen Morris. “It holds such truth and courage that can speak to anyone.”
Emeline was born in Tennessee and later moved to Rapides Parish, La. as a young adult. She then relocated to Houston in the early 1840s, where her and her sons were forced into slavery by slave owner Jesse P. Bolls. She filed suit in 1847, which came to be known as Emeline, a free person of color v. Jesse P. Bolls, to regain her freedom with guidance from her lawyer Peter Gray. Fortunately for Emeline, the court ruled in her favor, and Gray went on to later find what is now the renowned Baker Botts law firm. A happy ending indeed.
But the happy ending is not what completely defines Emeline’s voyage; instead, it’s her determination, bravery and strength that led her to fight. “[Emaline] was a woman of biracial ethnicity in that day and time, who not only had the courage to stand up for herself,” says Morris, “but also had faith enough in humanity and the legal infrastructure to seek proper justice for her unlawful treatment.”
The opera features moving lyrics that creatively weaves in political jargon that audiences can understand, as well as distinct costumes indicative of the time era. Expect to see attorney Gray sport a long, black jacket and Emeline in a petticoat, ankle-high dress and bonnet, according to Morris. She was also certain to incorporate the opera’s different themes throughout the set design, with large, black boxes that contain special symbols to portray courage, strength, law, freedom, and sanfoka—an African term “that means to understand your point in order to move on.”
Although current socio-political issues are much different than those of Emeline’s time, Morris believes that her story can still resonate with the audience in a meaningful way. “Sometimes the world can get very ugly and effect us in a way that is not best, but through determination we can have our voices be heard,” says Morris. “Ours voice can, and should, be heard in times when it’s needed.”
Free. April 30 at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main St.; May 1 at 3 p.m. at The DeLuxe Theater, 3303 Lyons Ave. 713-228-6737. houstongrandopera.org.