The birth of Arisa White and Jessica Jones’ “Post Pardon: The Opera” began with two deaths: those of poet Reetika Vazirani and her toddler son, Jehan Komunyakaa. White met Vazirani and her young son at a writing retreat for African diaspora poets in the summer of 2003. Weeks later, White read about Vazirani and her son’s tragic murder-suicide with astonishment. White’s profound confusion over how someone could not only kill herself but also her own child resulted in “Post Pardon,” a book of poetry that meditates on these concepts, which White wrote in 2004.
“For me, poetry has always been a way to investigate these larger human conditions, the big ‘why’ questions of the world,” White said in an interview with The Daily Californian.
White had always dreamed of creating a performance with the opulence and drama of an opera, and felt the themes and rhythm inherent in “Post Pardon” had an operatic appeal. She decided to take on the mammoth task of adapting her poetry into a libretto, bolstered by a grant from Oakland’s Cultural Funding Program.
“Working in a theatrical space, like with a script or a libretto, you have to create causality,” White said. “There has to be a sense of cause and effect, even if it’s not, ‘A does this, and that equals B or C.’ But I had to obey a certain kind of logic that convinces the audience of the world that I’m in. So I had to figure out the world that I’m in. That was a lot of the struggle of doing the adaptation — the 3-D element.”
The universe of “Post Pardon: The Opera” is both mundane and extra-sensory, incorporating mythological characters, spirits and a woman who can channel them. The main character, Reema (Jeannine Anderson), has committed suicide and infanticide before the storyline begins. Within the space of “Post Pardon,” Reema is reanimated and gives birth again, only to be haunted by Churail (Courtney Knott), a specter in Caribbean mythology who died in childbirth and who haunts new mothers and eats infants. This distress causes her to once again take her and her child’s lives.
Willo, a young, single woman played by Larena S. Burno, exists in the material world, but she has a spiritual understanding. Throughout the story, she finds a total of 33 journals written by Reema that document her terror, madness and sorrow. Willo also interacts with the Fates from Greek mythology.
The three Fates, Chi-Chi (Phoebe Anne Thomas Sorgen), Poe (Amber McZeal) and Nona (Cynthia Webster), drive the opera’s ability to discuss death as universal. The opera’s tagline, “What length is your life?” is even the title of Chi-Chi’s aria.
The plot of “Post Pardon” splices one world into another in the same way that White and Jones have courageously inserted themselves into the world of opera. Neither has a background in this type of theater. Jones composed a woozy, beat-driven and calypso-tinged score using only an intimate orchestra of piano, bass, drum and trumpet. These instruments, unusual choices in an opera, reflect all of “Post Pardon” as a piece of art. It melds together disparate and almost opposite understandings or aesthetics to evoke the unsettling. Its music, however, works to sublimate the poetry’s darkness.
“A lot of times people will obsess with its (opera’s) purity and create barriers for projects that can draw attention to this beautiful art form from drying for the sake of purity,” Knott said. “You have to understand that what opera was when it was new is what this project is: innovative.”
Part of the initial success of “Post Pardon” is due to the cast’s dedication to the densely intricate work and their roles. The vocalists met to practice their parts at each other’s apartments months before the complete rehearsals began. Each cast member gushed about how their roles seemed custom-tailored for them.
“Unbeknownst to me, we were made for these parts,” Anderson said. “I don’t know if they wrote the parts with us in mind, because the lyrics had been written for years before we got to it. But we naturally meshed into these roles. We were fated to be the cast for this piece.”
The cast held a sneak preview of the show July 13 at the Marion E. Greene Black Box Theatre in Oakland. The vocalists’ and musicians’ skilled portrayal of such emotional gravitascrushed and overwhelmed the packed house. A representative from the cultural funding program was in attendance and told the cast during a Q&A session after the show that White should apply for more grants to continue creating “Post Pardon: The Opera.” The audience raucously applauded the announcement and agreed unanimously that this kind of work is the future of opera.
Though the work is nascent and unrefined, the opera has matured into something beautiful, haunting and unexpected. But the project’s growth was a collaboration between the vocalists and musicians, interested community members, a grant from Oakland’s cultural program and supporters on Kickstarter. The $4,999 funding grant gave shape to the project, giving “Post Pardon” the legitimacy and experience of a cast to help mold the idea.
“The performers are perfecting the work, in a way,” Jones said.