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The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

White Snake opens a curtain for diverse stories

According to founder Cerise Jacobs, White Snakes Projects is named after a production she co-wrote with her late husband named “Madame White Snake.”

What do you picture when you hear the word “activism?” A mass protest? Chants and megaphones? Try picturing something new: a singer with a painted face, colorful lights and a crying audience.

White Snake Projects is a Boston-based activist opera company that writes and performs its own original creations. In addition to their vibrant productions and artistic work, they put on community events to engage youth performers and artists in theater. Through this work, White Snake Projects immerses audiences in stories of identity, diversity and social justice.

The company was founded by Cerise Jacobs after she resigned her law partnership. Before its founding, Jacobs and her husband Charles Jacobs wrote “Madame White Snake,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning production about a white snake demon that wants to become human so that she may experience love. Jacobs said that afterwards, it became clear to her that she had to keep moving forward.

“I also realized that no traditional opera company was going to look at me as a writer and a creator because of the way I looked, where I lived, in the sense of being a woman, being an immigrant, being a person of color,” Jacobs said. “So I founded White Snake Projects as a platform to give voice to people just like me.”

This past November, White Snake Projects held their annual event, “Let’s Celebrate!” which emphasizes diverse celebrations during the holiday season. This year’s lineup of productions included “Mother Goddess,” by composer Avik Sarkar. “Mother Goddess” tells the story of a South Asian transgender woman coming out during Kali Puja, a festival which celebrates the Goddess Kali: the Hindu goddess of destruction. Sarkar said that in a way, one has to destroy everything within themself in order to be reborn as somebody else.

Sarkar said that the story might resonate with people through its format of music: a universal language that ties people together, especially in a time that is politically divided.

“I think using music as a way of promoting these conversations is an opportunity to step outside the language and discourse of Democratic versus Republican or liberal versus conservative, which can be highly polarizing, and instead to immerse ourselves in a language and an act of creation that transcends those kinds of divisions,” Sarkar said.

In creating “Mother Goddess,” Sarkar said the story evolved to parallel her own personal growth in terms of her identity and coming out as a trans-feminine person. In addition to her own identity, Sarkar said that themes of social justice play a crucial role in her work and that she does not believe in abstract creation, rather, that art comes from the identities that one holds.

“As a trans person of color and the child of immigrants, I find that to be central to everything that I do in my artistic work. And the questions of social justice have been at the heart of what I do on the stage and in my compositions for a long time,” Sarkar said.

Tian Hui Ng, the Music Director of White Snake Projects, said that they try to make art that invites people to consider different perspectives, and to understand the personal aspects of different complex issues.

“It’s so easy for us to dehumanize one another, and to think of each other as caricatures and stereotypes that are easy to hate. But it’s almost always the case that when we sit down and learn about each other’s stories, there’s a point of connection,” Ng said.

According to Jacobs, inspiration for the company’s productions comes from believing passionately in something. Such was the case in 2017, when the Trump Administration revoked Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA, a program that defers the deportation of people who were brought to the United States illegally as children. These children are known as “Dreamers.”

“I actually wept with anger. I just cried with rage. And that was enough to say, ‘Okay, I want to write about it. I want to make something to address this incredible injustice,’” Jacobs said.

From this, the production “I Am A Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams” was born. According to Jacobs, the story, which toured to Pittsburgh, Binghamton and Syracuse, explores the plight of Dreamers and what it’s like to be an immigrant living in America today.

To ensure shows such as “I Am A Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams” are financially accessible to anyone who wants to see them, White Snake Projects uses a “pick your price” ticket system so that audience members may pay however much they can afford.

Ng said that theater as an art form provides the rare chance to reflect in ways that “traditional” activism does not.

“I think there aren’t very many places in our society where we come together as a public and we sit still for an hour and a half and listen to something,” Ng said. “Therefore, it gives us a unique opportunity to create a public space for people to think about these things.”

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