Editor’s note: Coco Picard spoke with Anna Martine Whitehead, Chicago artist and assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in early June. The comic above captures moments from their conversation. Text from the comic is transcribed here for ease of readability.
Performance designer Anna Martine Whitehead wrote and developed OBLIGATE! An opera in three acts since 2020. In February, Whitehead spoke with the Reader about a related video, Cadence, which has since screened on OTV Open Television and in an online program hosted by New York’s Chocolate Factory Theater in conjunction with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Whitehead will participate in an exhibition co-curated by the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and the Arts Incubator this summer.
As Whitehead grows OBLIGATE! for a live premiere at the end of the year, she reflects on how this work continues to deepen her sense of embodying nuance and complexity in the prison-industrial complex.
“I felt all the feelings I think I must feel on the outskirts of various prisons, in the waiting rooms. I think everything you need to do a dramatic, emotionally heavy theatrical production like an opera takes place in a prison waiting room, and it mostly involves black and brown women. I been in the Stateville [Correctional Center] waiting room and I thought, “It’s all happening here.
“The characters are all versions of myself. . . there is the overprotective, the angry, the crazy. There is also the correctional officer, who is extremely complex. I have empathy for this character, but I’ve also historically had beef with her in real life, so I’m grateful to [performer] Angel Beats Dawid for being able to develop his contours in depth. What becomes important in the character work that we do is trying to understand how each performer finds that character within themselves. Where does anger, for example, dwell in you and how do you dance that or sing that? Like what it looks like in the body, for example.
“We (black women, black and brown queer people, etc.) had to do this work with each other. But to understand why, you have to understand what it means that these waiting rooms are often filled with nothing but black and brown women and their children. Working on this project during the pandemic, it was so painfully clear that we are the ones, for the most part, doing the caretaking because we are the caretakers. I got into the habit of saying, “We are the guardians of the world. We hardly ever get paid to make art about our dreams together.
“That’s basically what OBLIGATE! is a structure to rejuvenate us to dream of a world beyond the prison-industrial complex and all its impoverished tentacles that enter our lives and make it almost or actually impossible to live.
OBLIGATE! An opera in three acts
Information and upcoming events listed on force-anopera.com. Whitehead also maintains annamartine.com.
“We have to imagine other possibilities for ourselves”
The United States incarcerates more people and incarcerates them at a higher rate than any other country in the world, with 2.3 million people currently in custody, more than half a million more than the country with the second highest population of imprisoned people. A 2021 report by the Sentencing Project found that black people…
Penguins, Pride and Pivot Arts events
So many outdoor events to share with you this week, so be sure to put on some sunscreen (everyone needs it at least, even you) and stay hydrated (you’ll feel better, seriously). And treat others with compassion, especially when it’s hot and sticky. We all feel it, and your new attitude will make everyone around you…
Seven more doors to Chicago in Tune
Chicago in Tune is a hard festival to describe, as it basically includes all the live music happening in the city from August 19th through September 19th. How that sounds to you depends heavily on the shows that are on your radar. The Reader has provided you with a number of aids: a schedule of shows covering the…
Inside the Fight for Racial Equity at SAIC
Current and former students, staff and faculty at the top-ranked art school describe microaggressions, discrimination and the failure of the anti-racism campaign.
“We can imagine our way to something else”
When Anthony Holmes goes to the doctor today, he is asked: how many heart attacks have you had? That’s because, says Holmes, the torture he suffered in 1973 at the hands of Chicago police commander Jon Burge included electrocution with an electric shock box and suffocation with plastic bags. . Burge and the predominantly white…
A very dark place
Maintaining mental health in prison was already difficult before COVID-19 hit.