Human Rights Lab Collaborates with Activist Opera Company on Interactive Forum Series and Virtual Opera

The Pozen Family Center Human Rights Lab has partnered with White Snake Projects (WSP) on a powerful new opera, Death By Life, which explores the intersection of systemic racism and mass incarceration in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

“It was important that Mr. Floyd’s brutal murder, which refocused America’s attention on systemic racism and racialized policing, not pass with a mere statement of solidarity. We wanted to make a memorial, and Death By Life emerged from a brain trust of concerned activists,” says Cerise Jacobs, Founding Artistic Director and Creator + Librettist of White Snake Projects, an activist opera company dedicated to producing new American opera that tells stories reflecting our 21st century experiences. 

For Cerise Jacobs, this collaboration continues a longtime connection to the Pozen Center. Under her leadership, White Snake Projects integrates original, socially relevant opera with activism, community outreach, and the latest digital technologies—work that pairs perfectly with the Human Rights Lab’s engagement in the intersecting human rights crises of mass incarceration and racialized policing. 

Alice Kim, Director of Human Rights Practice at the Pozen Center’s Human Rights Lab, has advised the White Snake Projects creative team throughout the research and development process for Death By Life. She informed them about a number of deeply personal and powerful essays written by currently and formerly incarcerated individuals and offered her insights during the review process. Cerise Jacobs and her team selected writings to adapt for the virtual stage and obtained the rights to each of the works, creating a true-to-life libretto based on the words and lived experiences of currently and formerly incarcerated people and a mother whose son is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. 

Music composed by five Black composers, ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s, helps to tell the stories of the seven writers: Raul Dorado, Mary L. Johnson, Monica Cosby, Andrew Phillips, Phil Hartsfield, Joe Dole, and Devon Terrell.

As a prelude to the premiere of Death By Life, the Human Rights Lab and White Snake Projects are also collaborating on a three-part event series, Understanding and Responding to Mass Incarceration. The series will cultivate an ecosystem around Death By Life that allows attendees to more fully immerse themselves in the issues addressed by the opera. 

The first event in this interactive forum, Art as Transformation: Music and Drama for Incarcerated Youth, was presented live on Tuesday, March 30. View a recording of the event here

On April 6 at 6 p.m. Central, a virtual exhibition and roundtable conversation, Art and Imagination Inside Prisons, will convene a panel of artists featuring Lab/CSRPC Artist for the People Practitioner Fellow Renaldo Hudson, whose painting “Freedom Cost” serves as the banner art for Death By Life. In conjunction with this event, the Pozen Center and White Snake Projects websites will link to a new virtual gallery of art by currently and formerly incarcerated artists.

The prelude series will conclude with Freedom-Making in an Age of Mass Incarceration on April 13 at 6 p.m. Central. Both of the final two events in the series will be moderated by Alice Kim.

Death By Life will premiere virtually on May 20, 2021, with additional performances on May 22 and May 25. Learn more about the production and about White Snake Projects on their website.