Doin’ Time: Families and Incarceration
A public lecture and performance
by Ashley Lucas
Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 7 PM
Hanks High School Theater
El Paso, Texas
Tickets: Adults $20, Students & Children $7
Doin’ Time: Families and Incarceration
A public lecture and performance
by Ashley Lucas
Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 7 PM
Hanks High School Theater
El Paso, Texas
Tickets: Adults $20, Students & Children $7
My friend and colleague Professor Kathy Perkins is hosting a performance of excerpts from my one-woman show Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass at the end of this month. Kathy is a renowned lighting designer, and her students this semester needed something to light for their final project. I will perform about half an hour of my play in conjunction with an hour-long student performance directed by Joseph Megel, who is also the director of Doin’ Time. The performances are free and open to the public. Please join us if you are in the area!
Drama 468 (Lighting Design) cordially invites you to our final design presentation on Nov. 29th (Thursday) at 5:00pm & Nov. 30th (Friday) at 7:00pm in the Kenan Theatre where we will present:
Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass, a one woman show, written and performed by DDA faculty
member Professor Ashley Lucas. Through a series of monologues, Lucas will perform excerpts from her play
that examine the impact of incarceration on families.
“RITES OF SPRING” – PERFORMING MODERNISM DEVISED BY COMM 263 CLASS
Using the historic rupture of the opening performance of the Rite of Spring as a prism, this performance of modernist
prose and poetry includes the works of James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolfe, T.S. Elliot, William Carlos Williams,
Marianne Moore and Samuel Beckett.
Both performances will be directed by Joseph Megel -Artist in Residence Department of Communication Studies
I sincerely apologize for not yet finding a moment to write about the incredible experiences I had performing Doin’ Time last month at Illinois State University and at Lincoln Correctional Center, but I promise to provide an update soon. In the mean time, here is a link to a radio interview I did with the local NPR station in Bloomington just prior to my performances there.
Please note that at the end of the radio interview I stated the wrong name of the activist organization I was describing. The organization I’m actually describing at this moment in the interview is Our Children’s Place, which is an amazing group of folks in North Carolina who provide support for the children of prisoners. The organization I named instead is another great activist organization called All of Us or None, which serves prisoners and reentrants nationwide. Both groups are doing vital and difficult work, and I am proud to support their efforts.
More soon. . .
About a year ago, a woman named Sherrin Fitzer contacted me out of the blue, asking if she could get a copy of the script of my play Doin’ Time to share with a group of women in an Illinois prison. Sherrin works at Lincoln Correctional Center for Women and leads a theatre troupe comprised of incarcerated women; they call their ensemble Acting Out. Sherrin and I exchanged many emails and conjured up a plan to collaborate. Janet Wilson, director of the School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University in Bloomington, has collaborated with Sherrin and the women of Acting Out for many years, and Janet extended an invitation to me to perform Doin’ Time on her campus. With support from many corners of the university, including the School of Theatre and Dance, Latino Studies, Crossroad’s Project, Honor’s Program, School of Social Work and the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences, Janet and Sherrin arranged a week-long residency for me:
My time at Illinois State will be very exciting, but what will happen at Lincoln Correctional later that week is the most amazing opportunity I’ve had in eight years of touring with this play. The women in the Acting Out troupe have read my script and written their own monologues about visitation and families. Sherrin has been emailing me drafts of their monologues, and in this manner the women and I have been able to respond to one another’s work. They have written some very powerful pieces, which they’ve been rehearsing with Sherrin. Doin’ Time‘s director, the incomparable Joseph Megel, will travel to Illinois with me, and we’ll spend all day on Thursday, September 20th in rehearsals inside the prison with the women of Acting Out. We’ll weave their eleven monologues into my play, and we’ll all perform together on the afternoon of Friday, September 21st for an audience of 150 to 200 incarcerated women. Two more incarcerated women will run the tech cues for the show.
I have performed in a handful of prisons now in the U.S., Ireland, and Canada, and I’ve seen prisoners perform plays of their own in Michigan, North Carolina, and Louisiana. I’ve also conducted and participated in improvisational theatre workshops in quite a few prisons, but this will be the first time that I’ve actually performed in a play with incarcerated theatre makers and the first time that anyone ever wrote or performed new material in response to my play Doin’ Time. I have never performed Doin’ Time with other actors, and though I haven’t yet met any of the women of Acting Out, I am already deeply moved by their words and their willingness to enter into this adventure with me.
If you are going to be near Bloomington this week, please come to the show! I’ll be posting more about my time in Illinois after my trip there.
Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, offers an undergraduate fellowship to five of its top students to encourage them to engage in high quality research throughout their academic careers. The Merle Kling Undergraduate Honors Fellowship provides students with the mentoring and support to conduct independent research on topics of their choosing. One of the current Kling fellows, Ezelle Sanford, III, came to my home institution, UNC Chapel Hill, in the summer of 2011 to participate in the Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (MURAP), where I taught him in a public speaking workshop that is part of the program’s roster of activities designed to prepare minority undergraduates for doctoral study in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Working under the direction of Dr. Reginald Hildebrand, Ezelle wrote a very fine research paper about community hospitals for African Americans in Durham, North Carolina, which he presented at one of the weekly MURAP seminars. This school year Ezelle nominated me to be the annual speaker for the Merle Kling Fellowship, and I am humbled by the invitation and delighted to be able to visit Washington University and meet Ezelle’s mentors and colleagues. The talk will take place on March 26, 2012 at 4 PM.
The 2012 Merle Kling Undergraduate Honors Fellowship presents
“Prisoners, Families, and Performance: Community Engagement Through the Arts“
A lecture/performance by Ashley Lucas
The United States currently incarcerates 2.3 million people, yet seldom do politicians, the media, or other forms of public discourse address what happens to the families, neighborhoods, and communities which are disrupted by the displacement of this extraordinary number of people. Women disproportionately bear the brunt of maintaining families which have lost income, stability, and continuity due to the imprisonment of loved ones. In an attempt to open up spaces for community dialogue about these issues, scholar, activist, and theatre maker Ashley Lucas developed an interview-based play, Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass, about the families of prisoners, which she has toured as a one-woman performance since 2004. This talk blends moments of performance with scholarly analysis of the effects of the prison industrial complex on women and families and argues that the arts can enable types of civic engagement and community dialogue which neither activism nor scholarship alone can engender.
On the morning of the first day of the 2012 Prisoner’s Family Conference in Albuquerque I had the good fortune to sit down next to really smart and very kind man named Seth Ford. He’s a social media consultant who spent five years as a political lobbyist. A series of events in his personal life led him to become concerned about the toll that violence and incarceration take on so many communities in the United States. He now lives in Denver and works for an amazing organization called the Pendulum Foundation, which works to end juvenile life without parole in Colorado. He also blogs about this and other juvenile justice issues on his website PolitiVisor.com.
From 1992 to 2005, kids could be given a sentence of life without parole in the state of Colorado. The legislature came to its senses in 2006 and ended this barbaric sentencing practice, but because the change in law was not retroactive, the fifty children who had already been sentenced to life without parole remain in the system. Now all of them are adults who have never lived independently outside a prison. What kind of nation believes that people who are too young to be trusted to vote, drink, or serve in the military should be judged unfit to live among us for the rest of their lives? As I wrote in an earlier post about the sentencing of Laurence Lovette, giving life sentences to young people is a poor investment in the future of our children, our country, and our public safety. The Pendulum Foundation’s battle against juvenile life without parole is vital.
At the Prisoner’s Family Conference Seth Ford led a workshop entitled “Community Organizing.” I’ve always prided myself on knowing a thing or two about community organizing. I’ve marched, demonstrated, leafleted, petitioned, been to sit-ins, and done my share of street theatre. I can sing “We Shall Overcome” with the best of them, but I had no idea how to do the kind of community organizing that Ford was teaching at this conference. He showed an enraptured (and Luddite) audience how to use Twitter to reach an audience as broad as a local news outlet, which is precisely what he’s done for the Pendulum Foundation. His Twitter handle is @PolitiComm, and thanks to him I’m now @razorwirewoman. I have a deep mistrust of the sound byte levelof information that can be conveyed in 140 characters, but I have learned that tweets can lead folks to sources of information that provide more context, like blogs and other websites.
I’m still a deep believer in the power of live interaction, in sitting in and demonstrating for justice, but I’m learning the power of electronic media to connect us to those whom we cannot reach directly. Thanks, Seth. The next time you need a friend to march beside you I’ll repay the favor.
The fourth annual Prisoner’s Family Conference, which was held over the last three days in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been more productive and more moving than any conference I have ever previously attended. An activist, rather than a scholarly, gathering, this conference brought together prisoners’ families, academics, prison ministry folks, lawyers, and advocates from all over the United States. This small but highly diverse group of people is doing remarkable work in a wide variety of prison-related settings, and both individually and in the aggregate I found them to be highly intelligent, painfully honest, and overwhelmingly likable people. Despite my eight years of performance and activist work connected to prisoners and families, I have never before been in a space where so many prisoners’ family members had gathered to support one another, and I greatly wish that many of my loved ones, including my mother, my father, and my friend and collaborator Jodie Lawston, could have been here to bear witness to all that transpired at the conference this week. (Jodie was slated to attend the conference but could not because of an illness. She is very disappointed to have missed the conference.)
At the opening session of the conference on Wednesday morning, Carolyn Esparza, the conference’s founder and chair, spoke about the challenges that she had see prisoners’ families face in Texas. She described a mother and children who drive over three hundred miles one-way from their home to a prison once a month to visit their husband and father; the officials at this prison decided that the family was visiting “too regularly” and has further restricted their ability to see one another, despite the fact that no one in this family violated any of the prison’s rules. Esparza also told another story about a man incarcerated in Texas who was bending over to retrieve his clothing after a routine strip search when a guard inserted the antenna of his transistor radio into the prisoner’s anus. The prisoner filed a complaint, and his family hired a lawyer. The warden on this unit tried to force the prisoner to sign a false confession saying he had fabricated this story of sexual violence, and when the prisoner refused, he was routinely punished by guards until the family’s attorney was able to get him moved to another prison, where he continued to experience restrictions on his visitation and phone calls because of sanctions put in place against him at the prison where he’d filed his complaint. Esparza hears these kinds of reports from prisoners’ families because she runs a nonprofit called Community Solutions of El Paso, which helps families and children cope with the ongoing trauma and challenges caused by having an incarcerated family member. She and her staff accomplish a great deal of good with very few resources.
After Esparza’s opening remarks, the first keynote speaker of the conference took the stage: Gregg Marcantel, the Secretary of Corrections for the State of New Mexico. Secretary Marcantel was appointed to this post just a few months ago, after having spent decades in law enforcement as a Marine and a police officer. The message of his address at the Prisoner’s Family Conference was that he understands the importance of preservation of family ties during incarceration and family reunification afterwards as key components in preventing recidivism among reentrants. He expressed a strong belief that the vast majority of incarcerated people can safely return to their homes and communities if they have the right kind of support, and we, the attendees of the Prisoner’s Family Conference, offered to help him implement policies and programming to strengthen families divided by incarceration. We promised him that first day of the conference that we would be working together both during the conference and afterwards to draft a Prisoners’ Families Bill of Rights and that we would deliver it to him when it was done. We asked Secretary Marcantel if he would receive the document from us and work with us to create programming for prisoners’ families in New Mexico, and he immediately replied in the affirmative. We are grateful to Secretary Marcantel’s commitment to preserving the rights of families, and over the course of two nights with over thirty conference attendees meeting as a working group, we crafted a first draft of the Prisoners’ Families Bill of Rights, which we will further revise before delivering it to Secretary Marcantel and his staff. We will also make that document public on this website and as many others as we can in hopes that state and federal prison systems, community advocates, and legislators throughout the U.S. will find ways to use it productively.
Far more exciting things took place at this conference than I can report in a single blog post, and I will be posting more in the days to come. Stay tuned.
As I mentioned in an earlier post on this blog, I’ll be heading to Albuquerque, New Mexico, from February 21 to 26 to participate in the Prisoners’ Family Conference. Carolyn Esparza, director of Community Solutions of El Paso (the organization hosting this conference), invited Jodie and I to lead an advocacy workshop at the conference in addition to speaking about Razor Wire Women. Unfortunately, Jodie will not be able to attend the conference, but I will keep her in the loop about all that happens there. Part of the work that Carolyn Esparza charged me with doing in the advocacy workshop is to collaboratively develop a Bill of Rights for Prisoners’ Families with the conference attendees who come to the session. Whether you are able to come to the conference in Albuquerque or not, I would love to hear from people reading this blog about what types of things should be included in this document. Our hope is that this Bill of Rights for Prisoners’ Families could be taken to state and federal legislators to help them better understand our needs and to establish a path to legal recourse for prisoners’ family members who have been denied access to visitation or vital information about their incarcerated loved ones.
Here is a very preliminary list of the kinds of issues that I think that a Bill of Rights for Prisoners’ Families should address:
Please comment on this post and/or contact me through the Contact Us portion of this website to add your concerns, thoughts, and constructive criticism to the drafting of a Bill of Rights for Prisoners’ Families. This document will be more effective and more comprehensive if many prisoners’ family members contribute to it. I will provide updates on this website after the conference about the process of drafting this document and where the conference participants imagine that it might be used.
If you will be attending the Prisoners’ Family Conference and would like to participate in the advocacy workshop, please look for my name in the conference program. Your thoughts and presence would be most welcome.
On December 6, I was interviewed by Adam Hayes from Loyal Citie Network Media about my research and advocacy work around women’s incarceration. Loyal Citie is interested in doing some work that highlights women’s incarceration. My interview will appear on a DVD with an interview by John Carlos, and Razor Wire Women will be featured on the site. We are looking forward to some collaborative work to bring increased awareness about, and social change around, mass incarceration in the United States. Thanks, Adam!!
On Tuesday December 6, I led a discussion on women in prison that particularly focused on women who kill their abusers in self defense. This discussion was organized by Raihana Siddiq of the Women’s Center at CSU San Marcos (Thank you, Raihana!!). There are an estimated 2,000 – 4,000 women in prison for killing their abusers in self defense, with about 600 of those women incarcerated in California (see Kathleen Ferraro’s Neither Angels Nor Demons and Elizabeth Leonard’s Convicted Survivors for more on this). California is one of the first states to have enacted laws around intimate partner violence in murder cases: In 1991, California began to permit expert testimony about intimate partner violence in murder cases, and in 2001, parole boards were directed to take into account histories of intimate partner violence during hearings (Silja Talvi has an excellent overview of this from 2002, here). The group Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA), originally created by Brenda Clubine, was instrumental in increasing awareness about women who kill their abusers. The film Sin By Silence, directed by Olivia Klaus, is an excellent and highly recommended resource for understanding how women who have experienced violence and abuse are then treated by the criminal justice system. It importantly features the women of CWAA so viewers begin to get an understanding of their situations and their incredible resiliency.
During the discussion, people asked what they can do to help. I’ll reiterate here that educating ourselves in the first step, and then engaging in prisoner support work, or becoming involved with organizations that are already doing this work–at whatever level you are able–helps to make a difference (check out the organizations we have listed on this site, as a start).
This week Razor Wire Women is being recognized as a significant new scholarly book at two separate events on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill.
Last night the Institute for African American Research (IAAR) held a reception to honor members of our campus’ African American Studies research community. Reginald Hildebrand, interim director of the IAAR, organized this event both to honor Eunice Sahle who has just been named the new chair of UNC’s Department of African and African American Studies and to recognize the UNC faculty members who have published books this year which make significant contributions to the field of African American Studies. Razor Wire Women was on the list of publications, and Hildebrand praised the book and its authors’ commitment to social justice.
On Wednesday, December 7 from 4 to 6 PM, UNC’s Institute for Arts and Humanities (IAH) will hold its annual holiday reception to celebrate books published in 2011 by IAH fellows. I have the absolute joy of being a fellow of the Institute this semester and am honored to be among the IAH authors who will be present to sign books tomorrow afternoon. The reception is open to all UNC affiliates.
On Tuesday of this week, Jodie and I read excerpts of Razor Wire Women for an enthusiastic crowd of professors, students, and activists at the Kenan Theatre at UNC Chapel Hill. Thank you to David Navalinsky and the rest of the staff in the Department of Dramatic Art for setting up the theatre for our reading and to the folks from UNC’s Bull’s Head Bookstore for selling copies of our book at the event!
We will do another such event at the Regulator Bookshop on Ninth St. in Durham, NC, tonight at 7 PM. Come join us if you’re in the area!
I received an email announcement this week from Cultural Odyssey–the performing arts umbrella organization which includes the work of the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women. For those of you who do not know about the Medea Project and have not seen them perform, I highly recommend that you get to San Francisco to see the work they do as soon as you can. Scholar Rena Fraden wrote an excellent book, Imagining Medea, published by UNC Press in 2001, about the theatre work being done by director, playwright, and performer Rhodessa Jones with the women at the San Francisco County Jail. Now Rhodessa herself has a new book forthcoming in 2012 (though I can’t yet find any information about what press will be releasing the book). Here’s an excerpt from the press release Cultural Odyssey sent out over email:
RHODESSA JONES’ upcoming book release
Nudging The Memory:
Creating Performance with The Medea
Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women – A Theater Handbook
“Nudging the Memory” is Rhodessa Jones’ first book! It is a response to the frequent inquiries from students, teachers, social workers, drama and family therapists, representatives of law enforcement, and of course artists/activists throughout the world regarding the work she has conducted with The Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women locally, nationally, and internationally. “Nudging the Memory” will be a theater handbook of performance exercises, writing explorations, and performance material that is used in the creation of autobiographical theatre for female offenders, as a means of re-entry and restorative justice, all as a part of a woman’s journey “home”. This document will aid others in giving voice to the voiceless, and empowering the powerless, hopefully ennobling all of us.
For further information about Jones’ new book, click here.
We are still in Atlanta and enjoying the National Women’s Studies Association Conference and getting ready for my performance of Doin’ Time at 8 PM tonight. Yesterday we had a book signing event, and SUNY Press is doing great things to promote our book. We’ll sign books again tonight after the show. Hope to see you there!
The two of us just arrived in Atlanta today to catch the beginning of the 2011 National Women’s Studies Association Conference. Tonight at 7 PM we will hear renowned scholar/activist Ruthie Gilmore give the keynote talk for the conference. Anyone interested in prisons should read her book, Golden Gulag, which deals with incarceration in California. A must read, this book importantly examines who benefits–and who loses–from prison expansion.
We are honored to be members of the National Women’s Studies Association and owe a great debt to them for their support of our work. NWSA gave us the opportunity to guest edit a special issue of what was then called the NWSA Journal–now known as Feminist Formations–on the topic of the policing, prosecution, and incarceration of women. When we put out the call for contributions for that special issue, we received far more worthy submissions than we could fit in a single journal issue, and those remaining articles, drawings, essays, poems, and stories became Razor Wire Women. Thank you, NWSA, for starting our journey with this book project!
If you are in Atlanta this weekend, we’d love to see you! We’ll be in the conference’s book exhibition signing copies of RWW on Friday at 4 PM, and on Saturday at 8 PM in the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel, Ashley will perform her one-woman play, Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass. Jodie will join Ashley for the post-show discussion and a book signing afterwards.
Jodie and I just had a wonderful experience doing our first book signing event at our alma mater, UC San Diego, this Monday, and we are so grateful to UCSD’s Departments of Ethnic Studies, Sociology, and Theatre & Dance for training us as graduate students and for welcoming us back with open arms to celebrate the publication of Razor Wire Women. A crowd of more than thirty of our former professors and colleagues along with current students and community members attended the event, and we were honored to share the limelight with Julietta Hua, who also received her Ph.D. from UCSD’s Ethnic Studies Department and who talked about her new book, Trafficking Women’s Human Rights. Special thanks to Yen Espiritu (Chair of Ethnic Studies) and to Lexi Killoren from UCSD’s Alumni Affairs for organizing this event. We are also grateful to the folks at the UCSD Bookstore who came to sell RWW and Trafficking Women’s Human Rights at our talk. Both books sold out at this event!
Jodie and I are looking forward to November 2011, when we will participate in many events to help promote RWW in Georgia and North Carolina. Be sure to catch us at the following events:
We thank everyone who has read the book and/or this blog for your enthusiastic and ongoing support. We firmly believe that dialogue, critical thinking, and cultural change are necessary in order to address the myriad injustices that surround the prison industrial complex, and we hope that this book and blog can help bring many new voices to this global conversation.
During the week that ended September and began October 2011, I had the privilege of taking my play to Canada for the first time. One of Razor Wire Women‘s contributors Simone Davis took on the arduous task of scheduling three performances at two universities and a prison in the nation where she teaches and makes her home. Simone does some incredible work. In addition to teaching at the University of Toronto, she has brought the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program to Canada for the first time, setting up a course which a professor named Shoshana Pollack now teaches for students from Wilfrid Laurier University and incarcerated women at Grand Valley Women’s Institution. By all reports, the new Inside-Out class is going very well, and at least one outside and a few inside students in the course attended my performance at the prison. During my time in Canada, Simone told me about an extraordinary annual event called Prisoners’ Justice Day which is commemorated all over Canada with fasts, speeches, and protests. Simone gave me a beautiful tee shirt designed for Prisoners’ Justice Day, and I will wear it with pride. Thank you, Simone!
My first performance in Canada took place in the lovely Gill Theatre at the University of Toronto, where an incredible group of faculty and graduate students hosted me and ran the tech for the show. Though the audience appeared to have about ninety people in it, they were so quiet that I could not read their reactions to the play until the house lights came on at the end of the show. (Canadian audiences outside of prisons are in my experience a much quieter bunch than folks in the U.S. or Ireland.) We had a very engaging and productive conversation at the end of the performance. Several days later I encountered an equally supportive audience at Trent University in the small town of Peterborough, where I was hosted by a wonderful scholar named Gillian Balfour whose co-edited collection Criminalizing Women has a good deal in common with Razor Wire Women.
In between the two university performances, I visited Grand Valley Women’s Institution and performed for a group of about thirty incarcerated women. The staff at Grand Valley explained to us that the prison has both minimum and medium security housing units but that the differences between the two were not enough to be much of an incentive for women to want to move down to medium security. The whole prison operates on a higher security level, and with stricter rules, than most minimum security facilities in Canada. True minimum security facilities in Canada do not have fences around them, but Grand Valley does. Even at that, I was surprised to learn that the women there had some privileges that incarcerated people in the U.S. almost never have, like communal kitchens where they can cook meals for themselves. (I also heard about such kitchens at the women’s prison in Dublin when I was there in 2005.) Grand Valley also has some form of segregation cells for holding prisoners in isolation, though I did not see them or hear about how many such cells exist or why women are placed there.
My access to Grand Valley was facilitated by Simone Davis and Grand Valley’s educational counselor Peter Stuart, who not only took care of all arrangements made in preparation of my arrival but also ran the sound cues during the play. Peter approaches his job with good humor, intelligence, and a genuine concern for the well-being and education of the women incarcerated at Grand Valley. He represents the very best sort of work that can be accomplished by prison employees; he works to help prepare women to have successful lives after they leave prison.
As with all audiences I’ve encountered inside prisons, the women at Grand Valley watched my performance so intently and with such obvious emotion that I felt wrapped up in the energy that they offered me. Several women left the performance early, most of them during the Healer monologue–the one published in RWW about a little girl whose father is in prison. They were not in any way disruptive as they left, but it seemed clear that those who were going felt it would be too painful to stay–or at least that it what it looked and felt like to me. The same thing happened with at least one of the women in the prison in Limerick, Ireland, when I performed there. That monologue in particular appears to be the one that elicits the most forceful emotions from women whom I presume are incarcerated mothers.
In the discussion after the performance, the women told me about what visiting with their families is like at Grand Valley. Drug sniffing dogs inspect each visitor and often terrify the children coming to see their mothers and grandmothers. One of the women was very upset about a new schedule for a form of special visitation where families can stay the better part of a day at the prison. Though I did not quite grasp all the details of how such visits are scheduled, I learned that such visits must be scheduled in advance and that the new form of scheduling makes it harder for families on the outside to choose the dates that would be workable for them, resulting in fewer of these special visits. Several of the women in the audience wept as the cuts in visiting were discussed, and then a surprising thing happened. One of the women who had spoken quite a bit during the discussion stood up and hugged me. She thanked me for my performance, then sat me down in the front row of the audience and said, “Now I have something I want to give to you.” She then performed a country song she had written about being an incarcerated mother. The song had several verses and a chorus complete with hand gestures that suggested holding a baby, dancing with a man, and dying. Never before has someone in an audience offered me a performance after my play, and I was delighted and remain deeply grateful.
People in all three of the audiences I met in Canada were deeply troubled by the new omnibus crime bill which looks certain to pass through Parliament soon. The bill introduces mandatory sentencing and longer prison terms than Canadians have faced in the past. The prison I visited was already expanding in anticipation of the many new prisoners expected in the next five years. Peter Stuart at Grand Valley has begun investigating longer term educational programming to benefit the women who will serve longer sentences. Why is it that other countries emulate the very worst of U.S. policies on crime and incarceration?
My memories of the women I met at Grand Valley will remain with me always, and my sincerest thanks go to Simone, Gillian, Peter, and the folks at the University of Toronto for making my first Canadian tour such a success. If any of the folks I met in Canada are reading this and would like to share reactions to the performances on the blog, we would be happy to post them.
Registration is now open for the Prisoners Family Conference. Jodie and I will be speaking about Razor Wire Women, and we look forward to meeting other prisoners’ family members at the conference. This is not a scholarly conference (though scholars besides the two of us will be in attendance); it is a gathering for primarily for prisoners’ family members, activists, and community service organizations.
Nina Billone Prieur is Assistant Professor of Theater Studies at Duke University. The following is a conference paper she presented about Ashley Lucas’s play, Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass, at the ATHE Conference in Chicago in August 2011. Many thanks to Nina for sharing her writing on this blog and for her thoughtful analysis of my performance. -Ashley Lucas
I had the pleasure of watching Ashley Lucas perform Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass along with students from my Performing Social Justice course this past spring at Duke University. Lucas first developed the performance in 2004 from interviews and written correspondence with prisoners’ family members, current and former prisoners, as well as people who work in and around the prison system. In addition to theaters, universities, and academic conferences, she has performed and continues to perform Doin’ Time in prisons and other correctional settings across the United States, as well as in Canada and Ireland. For the first hour of the performance, she artfully moves through a series of monologues either drawn verbatim from interviews or adapted to create composite and fictional characters. Finally, she closes the performance with a brief moment in which she speaks as herself—an interviewer, a performer, and someone who also has a loved one in prison. Immediately after this moment, the audience applauds, the house lights come up, and Lucas facilitates a discussion that functions in many ways as the performance’s second act. Throughout the conversation we had at Duke, and as I understand often occurs in Doin’ Time’s discussions, audience members asked Lucas to speak further about her own experiences having a family member in prison, and in response, some audience members were also moved to share their own experiences with loved ones inside, at times noting that these were experiences they did not usually speak about publicly.
Our panel today focuses on how documentary theater “unsettles remains,” with those remains most easily understood as historical artifacts. While Doin’ Time certainly animates the voices and experiences of people from a particular time and place, the performance, I think, is most remarkable for how it gives voice to an urgently contemporary story by facilitating a public conversation about (and between) the millions of Americans affected by the prison system whose stories tend to be buried not only in the past, but also here and now and all around us.
In many ways, this performance has a rather humble goal. As the character Nell who opens and closes the show explains, the play is a collection of “stories about people who got kinfolks in prison.” From this perspective, the performance focuses on sharing the particular experiences of those on one side of prison walls. One character, a photographer, speaks to the play’s central theme by noting:
I keep thinking about the people left behind when somebody goes to prison, and how that absence changes the shape of a family… It’s not like when someone dies and you mourn their passing and learn that life will never bring that person back to you in the flesh. You live daily with a palpable absence, with the knowledge that the people you love are living and breathing in a cement box somewhere, that they are alive and in a place where they cannot be well.
I am especially interested in how this seemingly humble goal of sharing the stories of those with kinfolks in prison invariably performs a powerful—and for many, a powerfully unsettling—form of social activism. By speaking about prison in ways that differ from our society’s conventional prison narratives, Lucas both exposes and challenges what we might understand as the prison’s “ghosting” operations. Most critically, the performance confronts the popular conception that the prison and those most affected by the prison, exist somehow “over there,” buried away at the edges of society and of the popular consciousness. Through the stories of those with loved ones inside, through Lucas’s own story, and finally through the stories of fellow audience members, Doin’ Time shifts the subject of the prison story from them, to you, to us.
It is precisely this “presenting” of the prison—this insistence on the system’s presence here and now and among us, even in that presumed safe “space apart” of the darkened theater—that many of my students found to be the most emotionally and intellectually unsettling aspect of the performance. It is of course important that we situate Duke’s generally sheltered, primarily white, highly privileged student population here, as my students’ responses are certainly not indicative of those across Lucas’s incredibly diverse audiences as a whole. That said, I would suggest that this shift in perspective that my students experienced from “over there” to “right here” can lead to a productive disorientation for many audience members, a disorientation that requires a rethinking of the relationship between “criminal justice” and “social justice” in American society.
After the post-show discussion, one of my students came up to me and tentatively shared that she had found the play to be incredibly moving, but she confessed, “I think I still disagree.” When I asked her what she disagreed with, she explained: “It’s just that I still think there are people in prison who are guilty.” In the weeks following the performance, as my students and I discussed the work both in and out of class, many shared similar sentiments: “I’m sorry that people are sad that their family members are in prison,” another noted, “But what about crime victims? Isn’t that the real story?” Others responded with the familiar sentiment: “People act like the prison is so bad, but what are we supposed to do, let rapists and murderers run free?” I was struck here but how and why a play about the experiences of people with family members in prison would elicit such responses. What was it about these stories that became for many of my students an argument about the “innocence” vs. the “guilt” of the incarcerated? Why was the legitimacy of these stories judged in opposition, and even seen as a threat, to the stories of crime victims? Doin’ Time does not explicitly put forth a particular political argument about these topics, yet many of my students could not get past the idea that the performance required them to choose between being either “for” or “against” prisons, and in turn, being either “for” or “against” prisoners, their families, and their communities. These binary constructions tended to rest on a general conception that incarcerated people, as well as their families and communities, could only be cast as either “innocent” or “guilty,” and by extension either “good” or “bad,” either one of “us” or one of “them.” The reason for this, I suspect, has a great deal to do with the prison’s “ghosting” operations and with the forces of dehumanization upon which the system relies.
As Ruthie Gilmore argues, “Dehumanization is…a necessary factor in the acceptance that millions of people (sometimes including oneself) should spend part or all of their lives in cages” (Golden Gulag, 243). In order to promote a system which (as the Supreme Court recently ruled in the case of California prisons) fails to protect the most basic human rights, a certain distancing process is necessary. The racialized and classed construction of “criminality” relies upon particular discursive conventions that allow for only certain stories to be told: stories about violent and/or repentant criminals, wronged and suffering victims, and determined truth-seeking police, prosecutors, and public officials. The stories of those who love someone inside simply do not fit within such a paradigm.
One the greatest disruptions for my students came with their difficulty reconciling their felt need to maintain clear boundaries between “good guys” and “bad guys,” “self” and “other” with the fact that they, quite simply, liked Ashley. They identified with her—an identification that was no doubt coded by perceptions of racial and class identity. Her body, her voice, and her story—as well as the bodies, voices, and stories that she channeled through the performance—simply did not fit within the narrative constructions upon which they had come to rely. Accepting Ashley and Ashley’s story as part of a larger, shared public narrative necessarily called into question their understanding of the prison’s public story more generally.
By bringing together the voices of spouses, children, and siblings of prisoners, by revealing both the diversity among those voices as well as the points of commonality between them, and by positioning them center stage, Doin’ Time effectively intervenes in what artist and scholar Sharon Daniel describes as the “public secrecy” of the prison. Despite a decreasing crime rate over the past thirty years, we in the United States have come to incarcerate not only more people, but also a greater percentage of our population than any other nation in the world. The images of and discussions about “crime” and “criminality” that circulate widely within the public sphere—in the form of political debates, news stories, movies, TV, and music—overwhelmingly serve to cover up, to dehumanize, to bury, not only criminalized individuals, but also their families and larger communities. Doin’ Time helps to counter the violence legitimized by these paradoxically verbose silences by facilitating a different kind of public conversation that pushes beyond the stifled and stifling narrative conventions upon which the prison relies.
Leslie Levitas, a Bay Area resident and contributor to RWW, sends her greetings to the readers of this blog and invites all of you to listen in to the radio program “Earthwise” this Friday, September 9, 2011 at 5 PM Pacific Time on KPFZ 88.1 FM Lake County Community Radio. You can stream the broadcast live from that website and hear Leslie read an excerpt from her story “Desiree” which appear in RWW.
Leslie will also do a reading from RWW and book signing event at Watershed Books in Lakeport, California, in early December. Watch the Appearances tab of this website for more information to come.
Thank you, Leslie, for your wonderful work! Several of Leslie’s beautiful photographs appear in RWW. To see more of them, check out this YouTube video called “Capp Street Talkin’” which uses Leslie’s photography to tell a story.
One of Razor Wire Women‘s contributors, Simone Davis, has been very gracious in inviting me to perform my one-woman play, Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass where she teaches at the University of Toronto and at Grand Valley Institution for Women. She has also arranged through her many connections for me to perform at neighboring Trent University. This will be my first time performing in Canada and also my first visit to a Canadian prison, where I look forward to meeting the women who participate in Simone’s Inside-Out classes. (For more on the Inside-Out program, read Simone’s chapter in RWW and see the program’s website.) Thank you to Simone, her colleagues at the Universities of Toronto and Trent, and the staff at Grand Valley for making this trip possible. Special thanks also to my good friend Adam Ulloa, an incredibly talented graphic designer, who made this amazing poster for the Toronto performance.
For more on the dates, locations, and times of Doin’ Time‘s first Canadian tour, see the Appearances Tab on this website.