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The Centre for Christian Spirituality: Arts Programming in and about Prison in Cape Town, South Africa

28 Aug

I’m now back in Michigan, getting ready for the start of the new school year. I apologize for not doing any Brazil blogging while in Brazil, but we had such a lovely, jam-packed trip that my schedule simply did not afford the time. I am going to post a little more on South Africa before writing about our adventures with the PCAP Brazil Exchange this year, but rest assured, I’ll get there as soon as I am able.

A poster from the Robben Island Museum.

A poster from the Robben Island Museum.

When Andy and I were in Cape Town, South Africa, our first order of business was to head to Robben Island to see the historic prison turned museum where Nelson Mandela had spent the majority of his incarceration. Unfortunately, we only got to see the small museum on the mainland shore where one catches the ferry to the island itself. August is winter in South Africa, and a rain storm and high tide caused the cancellation of all boats to Robben Island on the one day when we had time to make the trip. It feels wrong to have been on a prison-focused research trip to South Africa and to have missed Robben Island, but we couldn’t do anything about that.

Despite this, our time in Cape Town was quite productive. We met with staff members and formerly incarcerated participants of two local theatre projects and learned quite a lot about the nature and content of prison theatre in this part of South Africa. The rest of this blog post is devoted to one of those projects, and a later post will describe the work of another group called Young in Prison.

In the lobby of the beautiful Baxter Theatre, we met with Laurie Gaum from the Centre for Christian Spirituality and a reentrant named Lesley who has performed in a couple of theatre projects organized by the Centre. Laurie coordinates events for the Centre and has done a number of projects both inside Pollsmoor Prison (for some interesting photos of the prison and those who live within it, click here) and with reentrants in Cape Town. The Centre for Christian Spirituality was founded in 1986 by Father Francis Cull and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Centre’s website and the brochure that Laurie gave me both indicate a strong predilection towards addressing social justice initiatives as well as worship and spiritual contemplation. The language of justice and reconciliation appears frequently in their promotional materials, and this seems fitting not only because of the South African nation’s history with Apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but also because of the Centre’s active work in and around prisons. As Laurie described the Centre’s programming to us, he talked a good deal about masculinity and gender-based programming to help incarcerated men and reentrants explore both their spirituality and their family histories.  The Centre engages in visual art workshops which encourage prisoners to work with clay in silence and writing workshops which focus on gender biographies, family history, sexuality, spirituality, and leadership. He spoke of using theatre to enact “images of the male soul.”

The Centre is currently engaged in producing a series of dramas based on spirituality as it relates to social issues. The first of these, entitled Other, focused on stigmas of sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Though we didn’t hear a great deal about this production, we did learn that it involved a chorus and projected images on stage.

The second of theses dramas, called Fatherless, used three real life stories portrayed by their authors. Lesley Thomas, the reentrant who accompanied Laurie to meet us, was one of these author/actors. Fatherless grew out of a workshop that Laurie had been co-facilitating on masculinity in which a number of participants described instances of fatherlessness. In the production the three author/actors each told their own stories in different areas of a church. The audience stood in the middle and shifted to face each performer in turn. Lesley’s story had to do with going to prison and leaving his children as a result. Lesley grew up without a father and then was not present for his own children before or during his incarceration. He theorizes that everyone in prison is there because they focused too much on themselves and not enough on the other significant people in their lives. Lesley noticed while he was in prison that most of the men around him told stories about being fatherless and that the vast majority of visitors to the prison were women. He saw no fathers coming to visit their incarcerated sons.

Fatherless had two performances at the church in its initial run, and now officials in prison are talking about wanting to bring this performance inside the walls. Because the performance was created by volunteers, three of whom are professional actors along with a director and his assistant, Laurie worries that the group will be hard to hold together long enough to take the show to a new venue. They are also talking about the exciting possibility of taking the production of Other to the professional stage at the Baxter Theatre.

The Centre’s drama project focuses on masculinity because the participants find this theme both significant and difficult to address. They want to continue creating original performances and hope to address the issue of violence against women and children in one of their upcoming projects. The Centre works with a major NGO on issues of gender violence, and Laurie and Lesley are both trained as Gender Reconciliation facilitators. They see performance as an ideal medium for raising awareness and stimulating community involvement in social justice issues.

Lesley wants to change cultural perceptions in South Africa about incarceration as a rite of passage into manhood. He feels that many South African men actually want to serve time in prison because becoming a part of a prison gang earns them respect both inside the walls and on the streets when they return home. He says that many people believe that if you have not been in a prison gang, you aren’t a real man.

In our travels throughout South Africa, people kept recommending journalist Jonny Steinberg’s book The Number which recounts one man’s journey through life in a prison gang. (I confess here that I have not yet read Steinberg’s book and apologize if I am in any way misrepresenting prison gang culture in South Africa. I cannot tell you how much accuracy the following account holds, but I can say that we heard basically the same story from a number of different people throughout our trip.) The three main prison gangs in South Africa all identify themselves by numbers: the 28s, the 27s, and the 26s.  Apparently there are a few other numbers, but those three are the largest and most powerful. The shorthand explanation of the gangs that we received from several different people went something like this: The 28s control sex inside the prisons–both protecting some people from rape and bartering with the bodies of others. The 26s control drugs and money, and the 27s negotiate between the two. Once you are inducted into one of these gangs, you are a member for life, and your gang status and rank (accorded in military terms with the titles of general, captain, etc.) follows you both after you leave the prison and throughout any subsequent returns to prison.

Lesley managed to serve ten years in prison without joining a gang, and he now works with incarcerated boys, encouraging them to eschew gang life as well. He says many people believe that you have to join a gang in order to survive but that he teaches boys how to avoid this fate.

Lesley studied music throughout his time in prison. During Lesley’s incarceration (and perhaps now as well), imprisoned musicians had special privileges to sit outside and play their instruments. Les bonded with his children during visits by playing music for them, and since his release, he has grown closer to his son and daughter by playing music with them at their local church. Lesley plays the clarinet, and his children play the clarinet and trumpet. They have a new life as a reunited and committed family, and Les and Laurie continue their work with the Centre, striving to help other men learn to live peacefully.

*Many thanks to Laurie Gaum for his helpful feedback and edits on this post!

The Atonement Project: Restorative Justice and the Arts

10 Feb

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) is excited to announce an opportunity to be part of its new Atonement Project initiative—an arts-based restorative justice program that seeks to start meaningful conversations about crime, incarceration, and reconciliation.

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is invited to join a weekly Atonement Project arts workshop in either Detroit or Lansing. Workshops are facilitated by University of Michigan students enrolled in PCAP Director Ashley Lucas’ Atonement Project course. Workshops began February 1 (Detroit) and February 4 (Lansing) and run for 12 weeks. Contact Ashley Lucas at lucasash@umich.edu for more information or to register. You are welcome to join even if you already missed the first weeks of the workshop.

Project Description

The Atonement Project is an innovative, arts-based approach to addressing issues that many crime victims and people who have committed crimes find difficult to discuss (i.e. forgiveness and reconciliation). We wish to create spaces, both through an interactive website and through arts workshops in prisons and in communities affected by crime, where the arts and creativity can help us bridge the divides created by crime and incarceration. The ultimate goal of the Atonement Project is to bring together people whose lives have been shaped by crime so that we can join our efforts to prevent further harm to our families, loved ones, and communities.

Drawing on a broad variety of art forms, including visual art, creative writing, theater, music, poetry, and dance, the Atonement Project uses creative expression to engage participants in tough conversations about crime, punishment, and reconciliation. Technology, including the Atonement Project website, video, digital photography, social media, and interactive online tools will enable web users to have access to the products of our arts workshops and participate in larger conversations about forgiveness and atonement.

The use of creativity and art in examining issues related to atonement and reconciliation is a central component of the Atonement Project. Many people respond more openly to and are able to connect with the experiences of others when they read their stories and experience visual art. The art created in our workshops and displayed on our website will focus on the following three areas of the atonement process:

  • Acknowledgement: Recognizing how we have hurt and how we have been hurt by others.
  • Apology: Apologizing to those we have hurt, and apologizing to ourselves for the hurt we have caused ourselves.
  • Atonement: Atoning through direct actions in our community, with people we have hurt as well as ourselves.

Community Workshops

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is welcome to participate in community workshops, and there is no cost involved in participation. Workshops will take place once a week for two hours and will run for twelve weeks. We ask that participants try to come to all workshops, but we understand that not everyone who participates will be able to attend every single week.

Each workshop will be a space for participants to collaborate as a group on creative writing, performance, and/or visual art. No prior artistic training or previous affiliation with PCAP is required. Everyone is welcome, and no particular skill set is necessary for participation.

Detroit Workshop

Saturdays, 1-3pm

February 1-April 19, 2014

U-M Detroit Center (South Studio)

3663 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

Lansing Workshop

Tuesdays, 6:30-8:30pm

February 4-April 22, 2014

Michigan State University

Snyder-Phillips Hall C301
362 Bogue Street (close to the intersection of Bogue and Grand River)
East Lansing, MI 48825

Contact Ashley Lucas at lucasash@umich.edu to register.

About the Prison Creative Arts Project

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) was founded in 1990 with the mission to collaborate with incarcerated adults, incarcerated youth, urban youth and the formerly incarcerated to strengthen our community through creative expression. Housed in the University of Michigan’s Residential College, faculty and students work with community members both inside and outside prisons to engage in theatre, dance, visual art, creative writing, slam poetry, and music.

More information, including a link to the Atonement Project website (which we hope to launch later this month) will appear on this blog soon.

Meanwhile, my dear friend Margarita Mooney (a sociologist at Yale) visited our class and wrote a fantastic blog entry of her own that explains our work beautifully.  Thank you, Margarita, for your support of the Atonement Project and for your wonderful visit to the Atonement Project class!

Play in Tehran Draws Attention to Juvenile Executions in Iran

24 Jul

My dear friend Jules Odendahl-James–an excellent dramaturg and scholar who shares my interest in prison theatre work–forwarded me a link to this article about an interview-based play in Tehran about juveniles on death row in Iran.  Another really interesting and beautiful play on a similar topic was written by my good friend and former colleague Mark Perry.  A New Dress for Mona describes the life and death of Mona Mahmudnizhad, who is considered a martyr of the Baha’i faith because the Iranian government executed her for her beliefs in 1983.  Mona was seventeen at the time of her death.  Amnesty International and many other human rights groups have taken stands against the execution of juveniles, but the practice continues in Iran. The United States outlawed the execution of juveniles in 2005 (not very long ago by international human rights standards), but we still sentence juveniles to life without parole.  Amnesty International reports:

There are at least 2,500 people in the US serving life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old. The United States is believed to stand alone in sentencing children to life without parole. Although several countries technically permit the practice, Amnesty International knows of no cases outside the US where such a sentence has been imposed in recent years.

We need far more theatre and other types of art to draw attention to what happens to young people all over the world.  Congratulations and many thanks to the Iranian theatre practitioners do this work and to Mark Perry who writes from the United States about Iran and the Baha’i faith.  May your work have many audiences, and may our governments evolve to end juvenile executions and life without parole.

Trayvon Martin and the Justice We Cannot Seem to Reach

15 Jul

What I meant to write when I sat down at my computer this morning was a post about our second trip to the Maré favela here in Rio de Janeiro (You can read about our first visit to the favela here.), but all I can think about is Trayvon Martin and what his family must be feeling this morning.  Many people are writing quite eloquently about their sense of despair, powerlessness, and anger about the acquittal of George Zimmerman.  My favorite piece so far was posted by Frank Leonard on the Huffington Post.

As both the child of a currently incarcerated man and as someone who spends a lot of time seeing the damage that prisons do to people, I never feel like rejoicing when I hear news of another person being sentenced to a prison term.  That said, I also believe very deeply in the notion that governments should attempt to mete out fair and equitable justice, that every human life should be protected by the law, and that those who take a life should be called upon by the state to take responsibility for their actions, face the consequences, and make efforts towards atonement.  The Florida court and jury that acquitted George Zimmerman failed to ardently pursue justice, and they have failed not just Trayvon Martin’s family and loved ones but our entire nation.  If Trayvon Martin’s life is not worthy of even a conviction for manslaughter, then we cannot really claim to value any individual life in the United States.  Fundamentally, a person died, and there is no dispute about who shot him.  The fact that Zimmerman was not even convicted of manslaughter legalistically defines Trayvon Martin as less than human.

But, of course, we do value some lives and not others.  The specter of racism clouds every judicial process I have yet witnessed in my travels to prisons around the world.  All of the women we met in the theatre workshop at the prison here in Rio last week were phenotypically Black. (I realize that the terminology and understandings of race are significantly different in Brazil than they are in the U.S., and I make no claim to being able to parse this subtly.  I merely observe that whether these women self-identify as Black or not, every single incarcerated woman in the Teatro na Prisão workshop we witnessed would be phenotypically coded as Black or mixed race in the U.S.)  When I performed my one-woman play in a women’s prison in Canada in 2011, my friend who had taken me to the prison told me afterwards not to be fooled by the fact that I did not see any First Nations women in the prison; she reported that most of them were in solitary confinement.  In the small group of incarcerated women I met in an Irish prison in Dublin in 2005, I encountered two Black Panamanian women and a high number of other foreigners, mostly Eastern Europeans. Of course, in prisons across the U.S. we disproportionately lock up Blacks, Latina/os, Native Americans, the poor, and the undereducated.

None of this is news, and perhaps that’s why it hurts so much.  We continue to see the glaring inequalities in the ways in which we meet out justice, and so little changes across time and even various systems of government that it’s hard to stay hopeful.  I ceased believing in the righteousness or infallibility of any nation’s criminal justice system decades ago, yet justice remains a goal and a value that we must unceasingly pursue.  The lives of young people like Trayvon Martin are worth defending, and we cannot let this latest blow to human dignity, social justice, and individual freedom stop us in the interminable but necessary struggle to create the kind of world in which we would want all people to live–one in which the sight of a Black child in a hoodie would not inspire such fear that homicidal force would be anyone’s gut reaction.

My heart today is with Trayvon Martin’s family and friends, with one of my former students who said on Twitter that this verdict once again displayed the worth of his Black body, with the Black man I met in Louisiana who is serving ninety-nine years for stealing a toaster because of that state’s equivalent of the Three Strikes Law, with all who mourn for justice and those who are brave enough to continue to hope for something different in our future.

Sesame Street characters have parents in prison

18 Jun

I didn’t realize that it was possible for Sesame Street to tug at my heartstrings even more than it did when Big Bird got the news that the beloved grocer Mr. Hooper passed away when I was a child in the 1980s.  However, Sesame Street is now addressing one of the great crises that children in this country face today: parental incarceration.  Both a human and a muppet character on the show discuss the pain of having a father in prison, and the Sesame Street website provides a very useful tool kit and activities for caretakers of children with an incarcerated parent.  The tools are designed to help young children, ages 3 to 8, but their lessons are useful for all of us with an incarcerated loved one.

Thank you, folks at Sesame Street, for your attention to this serious issue and your compassion for children grappling with a frightening experience which will undoubtedly shape their lives.

Shaka Senghor on Prisoners and Technology

11 Jun

My dear friend and Prison Creative Arts Project Associate Shaka Senghor gave a talk about prisoners and their lack of access to technology at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City last week.  Check out the video of his speech on his website.

 

Shakespeare in Prisons Conference, Nov. 15-16, 2013

28 May

Shakespeare at Notre Dame is pleased to announce the Shakespeare in Prisons Conference hosted by the University of Notre Dame on Friday, November 15, and Saturday, November 16, 2013.

Featuring keynote addresses and film screenings by Curt Tofteland (founding director of Shakespeare Behind Bars) and Tom Magill (founder of the Educational Shakespeare Center and director of the Irish film Mickey B ), the conference aims to bring together artists and educators engaged in transformational arts programs using Shakespeare in prisons across the USA (and the world) for an exploration and study of the effects such programming has on prison populations. The goal is to promote a collaborative learning forum where participants will be exposed to a diverse array of programs that all strive for a common result: the habilitation of the inmate’s mind, heart, body, and spirit.

Departing from the traditional academic conference structure, the Shakespeare in Prisons conference will focus on the craft and experiences of the practitioner—while allowing ample time for one-on-one networking and collaboration.

In addition to the keynotes and film screenings (and Q&A’s), attendees are invited to participate in workshops that explore innovative methodologies, as well as panel discussions that are designed to stimulate discussion about practitioner experiences and best practices within the industrial prison complex.

Registration is $25 and includes a dinner/reception on Friday night, lunch and dinner on Saturday, and admission to all workshops and film screenings. Online registration begins on Monday, June 10 via www.conferences.nd.edu . More information regarding the conference schedule, lodging information, and the availability of a limited number of bursaries to help with attendee expenses will be made available on June 10. In the meantime, please contact Scott Jackson at scottjackson@nd.edu  for more information.

We hope that you will join us for this unique gathering of like-minded individuals.

All the very best–

Scott Jackson, Peter Holland, and Curt Tofteland

—————–

About the speakers and host:

Curt L. Tofteland  is the founder of the internationally acclaimed Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) program. SBB has twelve programs in Kentucky and Michigan. He currently facilitates the adult Shakespeare Behind Bars/Michigan program at the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon Heights and SBB’s first co-gender, court-ordered, juvenile Shakespeare Behind/Beyond Bars programs at the Ottawa County Juvenile Detention Center and the Juvenile Justice Institute. From 1995-2008, he facilitated the SBB/KY program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, producing and directing fourteen Shakespeare productions. His 2003 SBB/KY production of The Tempest  was chronicled by Philomath Films, producing the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars , which premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and went on to be screened at 40+ film festivals worldwide, winning eleven awards. He is a national and international speaker, having lectured at over forty colleges and universities across the United States and at TEDx Berkeley, TEDxEast (NYC), and TEDx Macatowa. For his work as a Prison Arts Practitioner he was awarded fellowships from the Fulbright and Petra Foundations, as well as a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Bellarmine University. He is a founding member and past president of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international service organization for theatres that produce the works of William Shakespeare. He is a published essayist and poet, currently authoring the book, Behind the Bard-Wire: Reflection, Responsibility, Redemption, & Forgiveness…The Transformative Power of Art, Theatre, and Shakespeare.  From 1989-2008, he served as producing artistic director of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, producing fifty Shakespeare productions, directing twenty-five, and acting in eight. A trailer for Shakespeare Behind Bars  can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2kr5wV_AiQ More information on Curt’s work can be found at http://www.shakespearebehindbars.org/

Tom Magill  is an ex-prisoner who transformed his life through arts education while in prison for violence. While incarcerated he met his enemy—and his enemy became his teacher. On release he earned a B.A. (Hons) in Drama and Theatre Studies at the University of Birmingham and an M.A. in Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. He is an award-winning filmmaker, drama facilitator, actor, writer, director, and producer. He specializes in utilizing Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” methodology and the works of William Shakespeare in transforming community and prison settings. After training with Michael Bogdanov, he became his and Augusto Boal’s personal representative in Northern Ireland. In 1999 he founded the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC) to develop drama and film with prisoners and ex-prisoners. ESC is an award-winning arts education charity, empowering marginalized people to find their voice and tell their stories through film. In 2007 he directed Mickey B , an award-winning feature film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth  cast with prisoners from Maghaberry maximum-security prison. For his film direction he has received the 2011 Justice in the Community Award (from the Northern Ireland Department of Justice), the 2008 Roger Graef Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film at the Koestler Awards (for Mickey B ), the Arthur Koestler Award for Prison Drama in 2004 and 2006 (for Inside Job  and The Big Question , respectively), and the Impetus Human Rights Award in 2005, 2006, and 2007 (for Bridging the Divide ). He has presented his film work in Britain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Israel, Nigeria, South Korea, and the United States. More information on Tom’s work can be found at http://esc-film.com/ A trailer of Mickey B  can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFKMIswx5VY Peter Holland  holds the McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare Studies and is the Associate Dean for the Arts at the University of Notre Dame. He is one of the central figures in performance-oriented Shakespeare criticism, served as Director of the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon before coming to Notre Dame in 2002. He is editor of Shakespeare Survey  as well as a number of other series. Among his books are English Shakespeares: Shakespeare on the English Stage in the 1990s  and a major study of Restoration drama The Ornament of Action . He has also edited many Shakespeare plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream  for the Oxford Shakespeare series. In 2007, he completed publication of a five volume series of collections of essays entitled Rethinking British Theatre History . In 2007-08, he served as President of the Shakespeare Association of America. He was elected an honorary fellow at Trinity Hall, his alma mater and one of the 31 colleges that comprise the University of Cambridge. His Arden edition of Coriolanus  was released in early 2013.

Shakespeare at Notre Dame  is a program that recognizes the centrality of the study of Shakespeare in humanistic pedagogy at the University of Notre Dame. The creation of the “Shakespeare Initiative” in 2001 sought to broaden the Shakespeare offerings on campus and establish the permanence of this new tradition for an audience of students, faculty, the South Bend community at-large, and a national and international audience. To that end, the current programs and future prospects that comprise Shakespeare at Notre Dame have created a regional center for Shakespearean scholarship, production, educational outreach, and academic research by enmeshing programs as far-reaching and diverse as Actors From The London Stage, the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival, visiting guest artists and lecturers, touring productions, and new media library collections; ensuring Notre Dame’s status as a nationally visible—and the Midwest’s pre-eminent—venue for Shakespeare Studies. Find out more at http://shakespeare.nd.edu/

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