Anice Thigpen

‘The Woman of Salt’ preview: from trauma to opera

Her family sundered by homophobia, a Eugene composer confronts a painful moment from her past by creating a new opera

by RACHAEL CARNES

It was at Anice Thigpen’s lowest emotional point that the protagonist in her new opera The Woman of Salt came to her.

“I was walking in the woods. And she took the wind out of the firs and made that the voice for the first song,” she says.

The Woman of Salt — Thigpen’s first opera — was born from deep trauma.

“I was there, in the childhoods of my children — flooded — and I turned around, and there, floating in space, is an oversized, feminine figure,” Thigpen says. “I recognized her as Lot’s wife. She telepathed to me, ‘Look back!’”

But before she could write the opera, which premieres June 23 at Springfield’s Wildish Theater, a part of Thigpen had to die.

‘It Didn’t Have to Be This Way’

When Thigpen looked back, here’s what she saw, and how she tells it.

She was in her late 20s and married with two young daughters when she came out to her family as gay. “We were living in rural Arkansas,” Thigpen says. “My oldest daughter, Erin Lee, was 5, and my youngest, Paige, was 2.”

Thigpen’s then-husband, 16 years her elder, at first took the news in stride. “Initially, he wasn’t so upset, nor surprised,” Thigpen says. “When he and I got married, I was already attracted to women, but I believed I could choose to be heterosexual.”

While her kids were little, Thigpen was a stay-at-home mom, a job she adored. She tried to be straight. “I made a go of it, but it wasn’t on my choice list,” she says.

Thigpen divorced her husband and, at first, the pair shared joint custody of their daughters.

Then things changed.

Anice Thigpen speaks to the audience at a preview performance of ‘Woman of Salt.’ Photo: Kelli Matthews.

In a suit brought against her after the initial divorce and custody hearings, the state of Arkansas awarded full custody of Thigpen’s girls to their father, based largely on Thigpen’s sexual orientation while questioning her emotional stability and referencing a distant attempt at self harm.

“He realized the power that my sexual orientation afforded him,” Thigpen says. “But I don’t want to villainize him.”

Thigpen flips through the score she’s written for The Woman of Salt and sips a bit of water. “They got a homophobic lawyer. The judge is a deacon in the Southern Baptist Church,” Thigpen says. “I got an original judgment and took it to the state Supreme Court, where I also got the shit kicked out of me.”

Thigpen half-smiles, shaking her head. Then she looks at me, almost as if I’m a foreigner. “How can I explain the Deep South?” she says. “My own parents were instrumental in leading the charge against me.”

Thigpen grows quiet, her eyes focused. “My parents were, and are, supporters of David Duke. My dad had a colleague who wrote his master’s thesis on the disproportionately small size of the Negro brain. They were — we were — steeped in racism, homophobia. It’s an illness and a blight — culturally, spiritually. I’m totally estranged from my parents and brothers.”

In the courtroom, Thigpen’s mother and father testified against her. Claiming that she was unfit, Thigpen’s parents encouraged the court to terminate their daughter’s rights to her own children.

“There is no immunity from that kind of assault,” Thigpen says. “No defense.”

In an instant, Thigpen’s role as primary caregiver was reduced to dust. “The court order limited my access to the girls and said I couldn’t take them out of state,” Thigpen says. “I was shunned, criminalized and impoverished.”

I Cannot Tell You Why’

Thigpen turned 60 this year. She grew up in a tiny town — Lecompte, Louisiana — where she learned to play the piano from Miss Martha Faye White, “who was classically trained and offered lessons out of her home,” Thigpen says. “I studied from the age of 8 or 9 right through high school. And I’ve never moved anywhere without my piano.”

Thigpen’s father taught English when she was growing up, and her mother stayed home. She has two siblings, an older brother and a younger one. She has no contact with any of them. “Family estrangement is probably much more prevalent than we are willing to talk about,” she says. “It’s like a collective secret.”

Laura Wayte and Anice Thigpen rehearsing ‘The Woman of Salt’ in Thigpen’s home. Photo: Todd Cooper.

Though wounded by her family’s betrayal, for the sake of her girls, Thigpen persisted. After the court tore her daughters from her, Thigpen moved to Austin, Texas, to pursue a doctorate. And every two to three weeks, for years, she made the 500-mile one-way drive from Austin to Little Rock and back to see her girls for a few precious hours.

“Every time I could, I got in my beat-up truck and drove to Arkansas,” she says. “I think this opera was being written on the drives home. My blood was a caustic sludge of rage.”

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