The Opera Game Available on-demand on Amazon 

Triangle native William “Ken” Mask is a bit of a renaissance man. The Hamlet native first moved to the Triangle for an undergraduate degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, traveling down Tobacco Road, afterward, to the Duke University School of Medicine.

But in the spirit of an artistic polymath cast in the mold of, say, Gordon Parks, Mask is also a novelist, children’s book author, musician, and filmmaker who has honed and nurtured an arts career that feels like an extension of his healing practices.

This month I watched The Opera Game, which Mask produced and co-wrote with Simon Marsalis, who is the son of jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.

The Opera Game reviews the short, brilliant, and ultimately tragic life of Paul Morphy, who, during the pre-Civil War period in the late 1850s, was recognized as a chess prodigy. Even though Morphy at the height of his fame turned his back on the game, he is still widely considered one of the greatest chess players to ever live.

The film’s title is drawn from an 1858 chess match held at an opera house in Paris between Morphy and two talented amateurs, a German noble and French aristocrat.

The Opera Game draws inevitable comparisons to Netflix’s runaway hit, The Queen’s Gambit.

“With The Queen’s Gambit, the filmmakers are playing close attention to the chess,” Mask says. “We are playing close attention to [Morphy’s] life, instead of the next great chess move. We try to document what’s happening in someone’s life outside of what they’re known for.”

In the film, a Black man (Jesse, played by Archie Sampier) serves as Morphy’s confidant and mentor, and two Black women (Karen Livers and Idella Johnson) also play main characters. It was imperative , Mask says, to show free men and women of color in roles other than that of “bowing down and saying ‘yas’um.’”

The 79-minute period piece is directed by Monty Ross, who co-founded, alongside Spike Lee, the production company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Ross also co-produced many of Lee’s early films, including Do The Right Thing, School Daze, and Malcolm X.  He says that the film also relied on the consulting work of actor and friend Wendell Pierce, a veteran stage and film actor best known for his role as Bunk in the landmark television series, The Wire. Another veteran from the series, Clarke Peters, narrates The Opera Game.

Mask, who often travels with the jazz giant’s orchestras and bands internationally, ostensibly for medical emergencies, says that he met Ross through one of Wynton’s percussionists,

“They call me ‘the Country Doctor,’” Mask says jokingly.

The beautifully filmed Opera Game is set in New Orleans, where Morphy was born to Alonzo Michael Morphy, who would serve as a Louisiana attorney general, and Louise Thérèse Félicité Thelcide Le Carpentier, who came from a prominent French Creole family.

“Which means she had some Black blood,” Mask adds. “I don’t care how you shake it.”

The Opera Game chronicles Morphy learning to play chess while watching his father and uncle play. He was only 10 when he soundly defeated  a Hungarian chess master who was visiting New Orleans; later, he traveled to Europe, where he defeated all of the acknowledged masters willing to play him.

Morphy was 20 when he first arrived in London in 1858. Upon returning to America and beginning an ill-fated law career a year later, he never played professional chess again, and 25 years later, died suddenly in his New Orleans home. His choice to leave the game that brought him such prominence resulted in his nickname: “The Pride and Sorrow of Chess.” 

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