A group of Black women in blue denim huddle together on the floor.
A scene from Force! Credit: Ricardo Adame

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 presently in custody—over half a million more than the country with the next highest population of imprisoned people. A report released in 2021 by the Sentencing Project found that Black people in the United States were five times more likely to be incarcerated than white people. And incarceration does not only affect those currently and previously in prison. According to data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, 113 million adults—or about 34 percent of the total population of the U.S.—have had an immediate member of their families in jail.

Yet even this overwhelming figure omits many more whose lives have become embedded in a system of surveillance, policing, and imprisonment. “Prisons exist to put people somewhere where we don’t have to remember them or think about them,” noted performance maker Anna Martine Whitehead in 2020. FORCE! an opera in three acts, with an original score by Whitehead, Ayanna Woods, Angel Bat Dawid, and Phillip Armstrong, spotlights some of the most forgotten—the women and femmes who care for people who have been incarcerated. Set in the waiting room of a prison (“the epitome of Black women’s loneliness”), six women and femmes of color come into contact with a mysterious growth that threatens to erase their memories as they ready themselves to enter the prison. 

“Prisons are these hidden spaces that are so impossible to see into, and that waiting room space is adjacent to the invisible space—in some ways it feels even more invisible or more opaque,” Whitehead says. “There’s so much happening psychically, emotionally, politically, socially. It’s all going down. We don’t talk about prisons, and we’re really not talking about those mostly women of color, mostly poor, working-class women in those spaces. They are in an architectural space that makes them feel terrible, they’re probably tired because they’re usually far from where they live. They might be visiting someone they’re really excited to see, or they’re mad that they’re in prison, or they’re mad that they haven’t done some paperwork they were supposed to do, or they’re nervous, or they have some bad news to share or good news. FORCE! is about all the complexity of those of us who go in to see people.”

On February 16, the public will get its first glimpse of FORCE! with the premiere of Cadenza, a short film directed by Whitehead and Wills Glasspiegel, on OTV. Cadenza—named for virtuosic ornamental passages often improvised by performers—is “an extension of FORCE! It gives a taste of it and does its own thing,” says Whitehead. “It’s not quite a documentary—it draws on the aesthetics and poetics of the opera, it’s another iteration of it.”

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The cast of FORCE! and Cadenza includes Chicago music and dance luminaries Zachary Nicol and Tramaine Parker (as Worn’n’Lovin Hustle), Rahila Coats and Woods (as Who Knows), Jenn Freeman and Daniella Pruitt (as Rage-a Tha World), and Bat Dawid (as Down’n’Battered). “There are six characters: three have a voice and a body, and the voice is played by a different actor than the body. Two characters have a voice but no body. And one has a body but no voice,” says Whitehead, who plays herself in the work. “All the characters are inspired by my thinking about my own experience.”

These experiences include over a decade of working with imprisoned people and prison workers—beginning with her first job out of college assisting her father with interviews of corrections officers in Washington, D.C. Later, as a puppeteer with Philadelphia’s Spiral Q puppet theater, which combines puppetry, street theater, and social justice work, Whitehead found herself in residencies working with those on the other side of the bars—people who were formerly incarcerated, on probation, on parole, or in a housing program. Since 2016, she has taught performance and dance with the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, which connects teaching artists and scholars to students in Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison outside Chicago in Crest Hill, Illinois. 

Conversations with currently and formerly incarcerated people, as well as parole officers and prison guards, have given her a broad perspective on prisons and imprisonment. “There’s more than two sides,” she says. “The older I get the more I understand how we are all in relation to the prison industrial complex. Penal culture is replicated throughout all aspects of my life—all of our lives. Some of us get off clean and some don’t. 

“I learn about my own family and understand my direct linkages to criminality, the space of illegality. I have family who are now or have been incarcerated. I have family members who are in the military, and there’s a relationship between policing and the military. I have family in the sex offender registry: you may not be spending time in prison but this registry shapes your life for the rest of your life. I think about my own run-ins with police and my relationship to education—there’s some uncomfortable overlaps between penal culture and higher education, especially privatized higher education. Prisons impact me and people I know personally—and ripple out much further than just the edifice of the prison.”

“FORCE! is at its core an abolitionist practice,” says Whitehead. “The making is just as important, if not more so, than the thing people will see. In the making, there’s a prioritization of Black queer people, our joy, and being joyful together. The methodologies we have for making capital A ‘Art’ don’t work for my people. They’re carceral—they’re about penalizing people, making people work for no money, sticking to these timeframes. The reason why those waiting rooms are filled with women, especially Black women and women of color, is because those are the people who do the caretaking. 

“When we create these structures, where in order to make art, you need to not make any money, and you need to work all the time, who can do that? People doing the caretaking can’t do that. A big part of the work happened in the process of making the work, and it’s about reimagining what it means to make work. We need to be together with each other, and we need to be imagining other possibilities for ourselves, other realities—that’s why we’re doing this. It doesn’t mean that when you watch it, you’ll go, ‘We need to abolish prisons now.’ That’s probably not going to happen. But the practice of creating it was an abolitionist practice, and for me, I can only now make work in this way.”

Cadenza premieres 2/16 on OTV, followed by an open panel discussion with scholar Marshall Green and members of the FORCE! Constellation. It will then be available through 3/16 at watch.weareo.tv/videos/force with a subscription. $4.99 monthly/$39.99 annual subscription gives access to all OTV programming. More information at www.force-anopera.com. Excerpts from FORCE! will also be performed on Mon 3/14, 7 PM, as part of the Night of Song with the CSOMusicNOW series at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, cso.org, $20.