Death By Life

May 20-25, 2021


Commissioned and Produced by White Snake Projects

Cerise Lim Jacobs
Creator and Librettist

White Snake Projects and its 2020-2021 programs programs are supported in part by a grant from the Boston Cultural Council and administered by the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture.

NEA logo

Death by Life is made possible in part by a CARES Act grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Key art based on "Freedom Cost," used by permission of artist Renaldo Hudson. Learn more about "Freedom Cost"

America watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered before our eyes. Almost immediately, my inbox filled with statements of support for Black Lives Matter. White Snake Projects did not want this moment to pass without a concrete response, to make a memorial through what we do best – making new opera. We issued a call to action and convened a brain trust comprising diverse participants. Death By Life (Imprisonment) emerged, an opera exploring the intersection of systemic racism and mass incarceration.

Collaborating with Alice Kim, Director of the Human Rights Lab at the University of Chicago, we reviewed essays written by those who have experienced incarceration as well as those currently experiencing incarceration, and purchased the rights to use their writing as the basis for the libretto. It is important that we hear directly from these writers, in their words. We are grateful to them for permission to use their work – Raul Dorado, Mary L. Johnson, Monica Cosby, Andrew Phillips, Phil Hartsfield, Joe Dole and Devon Terrell. These writers are figuring out life strategies everyday when they wake up in their cells; they're working to “assimilate” into society; they’re mothers who become “lifers” because their children are lifers; they're poets, philosophers, activists.

The stories that emerge show the humanity - indeed, the brilliance - of those experiencing incarceration, to forge new bonds, to reconcile with their actions, to move beyond mere survival to redefine what it means to live life fully— all within the constraints of the US penal system. It is humbling, frightening, and eyeopening. It is powerful, moving and unapologetic. It is a call to action to those of us who have never experienced incarceration to make the changes necessary to break the cycle of poverty, discrimination, devaluation of black and brown lives, and incarceration.

The five scenes in the opera are composed by five black composers who range in age from their 20’s to 80’s. Together, Jacinth Greywoode, Leila Adu-Gilmore, Jonathan Bailey Holland, David Sandford and Mary Watkins represent a long history of black classical music composition. White Snake Projects is proud to bring them together to make a new opera as our contribution to the BLM movement, and our hope for change now, today.



It's important that we bring the words of the incarcerated to you, not our version of their words, or our interpretive gloss on it.

"There are over 200,000 of us

And we are brilliant

We’re stripped of everything

But survive by invoking

A different kind of love

A different kind of hope

A different kind of dream

A different kind of life"

Artist of "Freedom Cost"

Alice Kim Advisor and Consultant


David Sanford David Sanford
Mary Watkins Mary Watkins
Jacinth Greywoode Jacinth Greywoode
Jonathan Bailey Holland Jonathan Bailey Holland
Leila Adu Leila Adu

Creative Team

Cerise Lim Jacobs Creator + Librettist
Tian Hui Ng Music Director
Keith McGill Dramaturg


Raul Dorado Raul Dorado is an incarcerated writer and criminal legal reform advocate. Follow the link above to read more about Raul.
Mary L. Johnson Mary L. Johnson is a pioneer in the struggle against Chicago police torture. Follow the link above to read more about Mary.
Monica Cosby Monica Cosby is the lead organizer of Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration and is a wonderful and valuable spirit in the Chicago movement community. Follow the link above to read more about Monica.
Andrew Phillips Andrew Phillips has been in prison for the last 12 years, and believes that each moment has been a gift. Follow the link above to read more about Andrew.
Phil Hartsfield Phil Hartsfield is a father and writer. He is currently incarcerated in Illinois serving what amounts to a life sentence. Follow the link above to read more about Phil.
Joe Dole Joe Dole is a published writer, artist, and activist, has been incarcerated for over 22 years, and spent a decade in the notorious TAMMS supermax prison. Follow the link above to read more about Joe.
Devon K. Terrell Devon K. Terrell was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago and is a graduate of Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls bachelor’s degree program. Follow the link above to read more about Devon.

Production Team

Curvin Huber Director of Innovation
Jon Robertson Audio Engineer
Miguel Flores Production Stage Manager
Taylor Hansen Production Manager
Becky Marsh Lighting Designer/Technical Supervisor

The Victory Players

Follow Us