Build an opera in the waiting room

Credit: Coco Picard

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 Whitehead also maintains


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