America watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered before our eyes. Almost immediately, my inbox filled with statements of support for Black Lives Matter. White Snake Projects did not want this moment to pass without a concrete response, to make a memorial through what we do best – making new opera. We issued a call to action and convened a brain trust comprising diverse participants. Death By Life (Imprisonment) emerged, an opera exploring the intersection of systemic racism and mass incarceration.
Collaborating with Alice Kim, Director of the Human Rights Lab at the University of Chicago, we reviewed essays written by those who have experienced incarceration as well as those currently experiencing incarceration, and purchased the rights to use their writing as the basis for the libretto. It is important that we hear directly from these writers, in their words. We are grateful to them for permission to use their work – Raul Dorado, Mary L. Johnson, Monica Cosby, Andrew Phillips, Phil Hartsfield, Joe Dole and Devon Terrell. These writers are figuring out life strategies everyday when they wake up in their cells; they're working to “assimilate” into society; they’re mothers who become “lifers” because their children are lifers; they're poets, philosophers, activists.
The stories that emerge show the humanity - indeed, the brilliance - of those experiencing incarceration, to forge new bonds, to reconcile with their actions, to move beyond mere survival to redefine what it means to live life fully— all within the constraints of the US penal system. It is humbling, frightening, and eyeopening. It is powerful, moving and unapologetic. It is a call to action to those of us who have never experienced incarceration to make the changes necessary to break the cycle of poverty, discrimination, devaluation of black and brown lives, and incarceration.
The five scenes in the opera are composed by five black composers who range in age from their 20’s to 80’s. Together, Jacinth Greywoode, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Jonathan Bailey Holland, David Sandford and Mary Watkins represent a long history of black classical music composition. White Snake Projects is proud to bring them together to make a new opera as our contribution to the BLM movement, and our hope for change now, today.
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