Building an opera in the waiting room

Credit: Coco Picard

Editor’s note: Coco Picard spoke to Chicago artist and School of the Art Institute of Chicago assistant professor Anna Martine Whitehead in early June. The comic above captures moments of their conversation. Text from the comic is transcribed here to ease readability.

Performance maker Anna Martine Whitehead has been writing and developing FORCE! An Opera in Three Acts since 2020. In February, Whitehead spoke with the Reader about a related video, Cadenza, that has since screened on OTV Open Television and in an online program hosted by New York’s Chocolate Factory Theater in collaboration with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Whitehead will participate in an exhibition co-hosted by the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and the Arts Incubator this summer. 

As Whitehead develops FORCE! 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’ve felt every feeling I think I have to feel on the outskirts of various prisons, in the waiting rooms. I think everything you need to make a high drama, emotionally heavy theatrical production like an opera happens in a prison waiting room, and it mostly involves Black and Brown women. I’ve stood in the Stateville [Correctional Center] waiting room and thought, ‘Everything is happening right here.’

“The characters are all versions of myself . . . there is the overprotective one, the angry one, the crazy one. There’s also the corrections officer, who is extremely complex. I have empathy for this character but have also historically had beef with her in real life, so I’m grateful to [performer] Angel Bat Dawid for being able to deeply develop her contours. What becomes important in the character work we do is to try and understand how each performer finds that character within themselves. Where does the anger, for example, live in you and how do you dance that or sing that? Like what does that look like in the body, for example.

“We (Black women, Black and Brown queers, etc.) needed to do this work with each other. But to understand why, you have to understand what it means that these waiting rooms are often full of only Black and Brown women and their kids. Working on this project through the pandemic it was so painfully clear that we are the ones who, for the most part, do the caretaking because we are the caretakers. I got into the habit of saying, ‘We are the caretakers of the world.’ We almost never get paid to make art about our dreams together. 

“That is fundamentally what FORCE! is—a structure for resourcing ourselves to dream of a world beyond the prison-industrial complex and all its impoverished tentacles that reach into our lives and make it almost or actually impossible to live.” 

FORCE! An Opera in Three Acts
Information and upcoming events listed at force-anopera.com. Whitehead also maintains annamartine.com.


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