Sarah LaBrie is a librettist and writer. Her work in The Industry's opera Hopscotch was featured in The New Yorker as well as The New York Times, L.A. Times, and on NPR. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies from Yaddo and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and is the editor of The California Prose Directory 2016: New Writing From the Golden State (Outpost19). Her writing also appears in Guernica, The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, Epoch, Lucky Peach, the L.A. Weekly and elsewhere. Sarah lives in Los Angeles and grew up in Houston, Texas. She graduated from Brown University and holds an MFA from New York University.
SARAH LABRIE ON dreams of the new world:
In building the libretto for dreams of the new world, I wanted to ask certain questions: How did we get here? What kind of future are we laying the groundwork for? And what will come after we’re gone? I’m also a fiction writer, and in this work, as in all of my writing, it was important to me to examine the subjects at hand through the lens of race and its relationship to power.
In Memphis, we interviewed academics and second- and third-generation Memphians about the rise of a black business owning class in the city during the Reconstruction period, right after the Civil War. We focused on Robert R. Church, said to be Tennessee’s first black millionaire, a freed slave who owned a bank, a large house, and a hotel on Beale Street. In Houston, my hometown, we researched a similar moment of great opportunity, focusing on the oil industry, and the workers, black and white, who made their fortunes their in the 1970s. (My grandmother is an entrepreneur who moved from Marshall, a small town in East Texas, to build a life for herself and her children in Houston in the late 1960s. For this reason, this section of the libretto felt deeply personal to me.)
Next, we looked at what happened after the dream specific to each place and time period appeared to have been achieved. In Memphis, after Reconstruction, after Jim Crow laws were set in place, Bob Church’s children were run out of town. The Church house was burned down, the ground was paved over, and the Church name was virtually forgotten. In Houston, many workers who built their fortunes on oil did so without knowing about the destruction the industry would cause. Today, of course, we’re watching some of the consequences of that lack of awareness play out in the form of catastrophic climate change.
These stories may feel like the past, but they aren’t the past. They’re still shaping the present even now. With this in mind, we decided to interview those on the bleeding edge of modernity, aerospace industry leaders in Los Angeles who want to take humanity to the moon and to Mars. Although 19th century Memphis, 20th century Houston, and 21st century Los Angeles might seem to lack a common link, these eras and locations share a certain radical optimism and a pervasive sense of impending change. For me, dreams of the new world is about the boom and bust cycles that characterize human progress, and the ways in which the same stories play out again and again in various guises across time.