Who Can It Be Now? It’s a Wombat!

6 Jul
Wombat at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney.

Wombat at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney.

I’d intended to report chronologically on my Australian adventures and will endeavor to provide a fairly linear account of what I’m doing here, but I couldn’t resist jumping ahead a few days in my storytelling to report that I have seen the cutest of Australia’s natural wonders—get ready for it—THE WOMBAT! I actually encountered a couple of different varieties at the fabulous Taronga Zoo in Sydney, and my favorite marsupial did not fail to please. More on wombats throughout these chronicles from down under will surely be forthcoming, but I just couldn’t wait for you to see how precious a wombat really is. So chubby! Such a fine nose! This specimen was enjoying a carrot during my visit to the zoo.

One further digression before I get back to my tale, you must check out the Periphery—a really great online literary publication which has previously published great work by Chris Dankovich who has also had quite a few pieces in PCAP’s Michigan Reivew of Prisoner Creative Writing. In addition to reading Dankovich’s story (and basically anything you find anywhere that Dankovich has written because he’s that good), you should take a gander at this piece that my very talented husband Phil Christman wrote about novelist and journalist Renata Adler, who, as Phil so eloquently argues, is well worth reading herself.

Back to the other side of the world! Picking up my journey where my last blog post left off, I arrived in Sydney a little after 6 AM on what was July 2 here but still July 1 in my native land. The sun didn’t rise for another hour or so, and when it did, it was startling because my body felt like it was night but all of a sudden was being asked to begin a new day.

Here I am in Sydney!

Here I am in Sydney!

It’s winter in Australia, which seems to trouble the locals greatly. They shiver and exclaim how cold it is and apologize to me as though they had done me some great offense in conjuring up clear skies and heavenly light with a bit of chill in the air. The weather has been mostly in the 50s during the day in Sydney, and the sun shines more brightly here now than it does in the height of summer in Michigan. I’m told that the ozone layer above Australia has suffered a good deal of damage, which is a great shame, but having survived a particularly cold couple of winters for the last two years in Michigan, I appreciate a good, strong ray of sunlight, even as I try not to dwell on our earth-wrecking habits as a species. When I tell folks in Sydney that in a few weeks I’ll make my way down to Hobart—a city on the island of Tasmania which is Australia’s southernmost state—my Australian friends wince and tell me that it’s been colder there than it ever has in the last sixty years. The internet (or interweb as I’ve heard Aussies say) has been showing lows in the 30s in Hobart—winter temperatures which would cause my University of Michigan students to run around in shorts and throw outdoor parties. My personal feelings about the cold have always tended to land squarely alongside those of my new friends down under, but I’m realizing for the first time since I’ve moved to the Midwest that I actually am more able to withstand the cold than someone else on earth! I dread the Michigan winters and complain just as bitterly as the Australians are doing now, but in this beautiful land of wombats and perpetual sunshine I stand out as a tough and wizened survivor of real winters. No one at home would ever believe that there was another person on earth who has a lower tolerance for the cold than I do, but there it is. Australia is a land of wonders.

My residence in Sydney has been a very comfortable Holiday Inn in the charming neighborhood of Potts Point. Here and in several other residential neighborhoods through which I’ve wandered, the homes, apartments, and backpackers’ hostels have lovely little balconies with intricate wrought iron railings, reminiscent of those you might find in New Orleans but in a distinct style of their own. Sydney has a delightful architectural mix of very modern buildings and large, old stone edifices like those you might find in London. The colonial hand is evident throughout the city, which startled me more than it should have. Australia seems like such a far outpost of the British empire that I didn’t expect to find the Queen on postage stamps and currency, but there she is—blue hat and all.

I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around Australia’s current political link to the United Kingdom. As I understand it, the Australian prime minister doesn’t exactly report to her Majesty, but the Queen does appoint a regent of some sort—called the Governor-General—whom she usually selects based on the Australian prime minister’s recommendation. However, this has more substance than the mere form of a shadowy monarchical figurehead. In 1975 the Governor-General exercised a never before used right to fire the Australian prime minister, install a temporary leader, and hold new elections for a permanent replacement. In an even more bizarre twist, in the subsequent vote the Australians overwhelmingly elected the gentleman whom the British had installed as their temporary leader. The prime minister who was thrown out must have been hugely unpopular, but it still seems like Australians might have been righteously upset about that heavy handed of a British intervention in their independent governance. I read only a few sentences of the history of this remarkable political upheaval and cannot pretend to have even the faintest grasp of what was really going on there, but it startles me to think that in such recent history the Aussies were not more fiercely protective of their independence. In 1986 the Australia Acts finally removed the British’s right to intervene in Australian government. It’s a strange and complex history.

Then there’s the most bizarre tale I’ve heard of Australia’s history. In 1967, Harold Holt, the sitting Prime Minister, disappeared into the ocean at a place called Cheviot Beach and was never seen again. No body was ever recovered. How is it that the head of state of such a large nation in such a recent period of world history could have vanished into the sea? Furthermore, why hadn’t I ever heard about this until I read Bill Bryson’s delightful travelogue In a Sunburned Country?

I digress. I’ve promised to tell you of my adventures in Sydney, and so I shall. My musings on Australian weather, culture, and history grow out of my fascination with the people and place I am encountering here. The wonders, great and small, rush upon me, and my thoughts and words go wandering.

After checking into my hotel in Potts Point with a quite stunning view of the harbor, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and the glorious Opera House, I set about exploring and went in search of food and some much needed coffee. I wandered in the direction of the large clustering of beautiful public parks and gardens in the heart of Sydney, conveniently located within walking distance of my hotel. I found a restaurant called the Pavilion on the edge of a huge expanse of green called the Dominion (a lot less intimidating than it sounds in U.S. parlance).

As I sat in the sunshine and ate a tasty meal, I had my first encounter with Australian wildlife. Some really cute brown 100_2027birds sat on the backs of the other empty chairs at my table and talked to me while I ate. They were quite polite and had a good deal to say. There’s quite a lot of birdsong in the public parks of Sydney, and it’s unlike listening to birds in the U.S. Many different birds were talking in the park that day, and their songs were strange and melodious. When the little brown, chubby birds who were sitting with me started to talk, they puffed up big and fluffy and returned to their regular sleek appearance when they quieted down. After they’d said what they came to say, they fluttered off to talk to someone else.

Needing more than a regular dose of caffeine to see me through the early stages of jet lag, I ordered a second latte. It was delivered to my table while I was reading my book. As soon as the waitress stepped away from my table, two very fast and brightly colored parrots landed on my table, snatched up the unopened sugar packet from my saucer, and leapt over to

Parrots, eating my sugar.

Parrots, eating my sugar.

the chair next to me where they skillfully opened the packet and devoured the sugar. I was too fascinated to shoo them away, but they quickly left once they’d finished their snack. They had obviously done this before. Just as the parrots were departing, a white ibisy-looking thing about a foot and a half tall, walked past my ankles. I tried to take a picture but wasn’t fast enough. I stood up to turn to follow it for a better shot, and as soon as I stood, a fleet of the chubby brown birds landed on my table, ready to finish my half-eaten breakfast. I let the ibis go and resumed my seat to guard my breakfast. The chubby birds departed but looked at me like I’d done them wrong.

In my next post, I’ll tell you all about the fabulous New South Wales Art Gallery and its treasures.

Large ibis-looking thingy.

Large ibis-looking thingy.

Research from a Land Down Under

2 Jul

For the last two and a half years, I’ve been trekking around the globe whenever my teaching schedule permits in order to learn as much as I can about theatre programming in prisons around the world. I’ve just begun my last big international research trip for the book I’m writing and will be spending a little over three weeks exploring Australia and New Zealand.

All my life, I’ve wanted to see Australia. In literature and film, I’ve been enchanted by tales of the vastness of its deserts, the strangeness of its wildlife, the decadence of its drag queens. It’s history of incarceration is as interesting and unique as its natural wonders. Australia is the only nation founded as a penal colony. Before the buildings we call prisons were ever erected on this continent, the British sent ships of captives and sailors to a land so distant and difficult to settle that landing upon its shores was a form of imprisonment. Those first settlers had no hope of a return passage to England, and the only lives they had known prior to their exile were gone from them forever. The sailors who journeyed with the imprisoned fell to the same lot as their wards and were equally punished alongside the men they were set to guard. Many of those sentenced to life in Australia were guilty of very minor offences—Bill Bryson remarks about one man who was sent across the globe for the offence of impersonating an Egyptian—and the effect of this was a deportation of a sizable chunk of England’s poor.

This narrative of incarceration as a strategy for class and race containment recurs again and again all over the world. Though no one comes close to the horrific rates of incarceration in my home country, New Zealand has one of the next highest per capita incarceration rates in the world, precisely because they’ve ravaged their indigenous population. The Maori make up only 15% of the population of this island nation yet form 51% of their prison population. Michelle Alexander wasn’t just describing the U.S. when she wrote about prisons as the new Jim Crow. In fact, there’s not much that’s new about racism, class consciousness, and fear driving systems of punishment. I’m newly struck by this sadness in each country whose prisons I visit.

That said, I am equally struck by the generosity and kindness that prison theatre makers and volunteers have shown me in every place that I have traveled to do this research. I’ve only just arrived in Australia, and the folks in Sydney have been extraordinarily kind. It seems to me that volunteering in prisons, particularly in ways that engage one’s creativity, makes people more considerate of one another in every place we encounter one another in the world. When you intimately understand the ways in which human beings have calculatedly stripped one another of dignity and freedom, it makes one want to treat those around one with as much respect and thoughtfulness as we imperfect beings can muster. I am immensely grateful to all the folks I’ve encountered in my years of travel who have made time for a perfect stranger who asks all sorts of probing questions about the sensitive work that they do under immensely difficult circumstances.

Many more ruminations about prisons are doubtless forthcoming as I chronicle this trip, but for now I’d rather talk about the bizarre experience of getting to the other side of the world. It’s 8:30 in the morning as I write this from a charming Sydney café where I’ve had a fabulous breakfast. Many restaurants in Sydney serve breakfast until early afternoon, and I could definitely get used to this. Meanwhile, it’s yesterday where I live in Michigan—around 6:30 PM—which puts me a day ahead of my loved ones who are presently living the past while I wander about making new friends tomorrow, which feels very much like right now.

Dr. Who would call this one of those timey wimey thingies, and there are certainly aspects of being in Australia that feel rather like science fiction. For starters, one flies in perpetual darkness from Los Angeles to Sydney and arrives two days after you’ve started. I realize that this has something to do with crossing the international dateline, but I understand that in the same way that I comprehend quantum physics or my relationship with Time Warner Cable. I had a window seat on the flight to Sydney, and though the middle seat was mercifully empty, I had a rather chatty companion in the aisle seat of my little row. Mary is a fifty-something Lebanese Australian housekeeper with four children, one of whom had just been married in Michigan. She was returning home to Sydney after about five weeks of travel in the U.S., including a lengthy stay at her brother’s home in Detroit. You may rightly assume that I know all of this because Mary saw fit to tell it to me. I am the sort of person to whom strangers tell the stories of their lives, especially when we happen to be seated next to one another on any form of public transit. I have no idea what it is about me that causes the ready unburdening of others’ souls, but it happens so routinely that my mother used to greet me at the airport by asking me to point out which friends I’d made on my journey.

This gift of mine is particularly acute when I am seated next to anyone over the age of fifty. Women wish to adopt me as an extra member of their families, and men want to talk me into going back to their hotel rooms upon arrival in whichever place the plane, bus, or train is landing. This was a particularly acute problem when I was in my teens and twenties and thankfully appears to have waned a bit in the last few years. That is not to say that folks on public transit talk to me any less, but I am propositioned less often by men. I’m sure this has something to do with arriving at the ancient state of being in my mid-thirties—an age which I’m loving but about which the sort of men who try to pick up younger women are less excited. I’ve also now had a decade to practice my look of disgusted impatience with men who begin this line of inquiry with me. An air of haughty self-possession can go a long way to chasing off unwanted flirtation.

This, however, has absolutely no effect on men or women who just wish to tell you about themselves, and the fact that I find most people absolutely fascinating does little to dissuade those who wish to talk to me, even when I would rather have this chat at some other time when I am not exhausted to the point of near collapse. Mary from the flight to Sydney needed help with filling out her immigration and customs form. I was relieved to find that she had not recently been exposed to Ebola and that she was not carrying illicit drugs or over 40,000 Australian dollars on our flight. It’s amazing what intimate things you learn when filling out someone’s immigration forms. When she wasn’t telling me about her family, she laid across the empty seat between us with her head in my lap and dozed, only to wake up again and warn me about how cold it is in Sydney these days. Bless the hearts of people in Sydney! It’s in the 50s here, and they’re all shivering. Mary was lucky to have visited Michigan in June. A February trip might have killed her. In keeping with my mother’s admonitions about how dirty airplanes are, I liberally wiped all the surfaces I might touch over the course of our flight with a Clorox wipe and offered one to Mary, who thought I was the funniest person alive for doing this. She gleefully wiped all of the MERS, MRSA, and whatever other forms of vile death lurk on germy airplane surfaces off her arm rests and tray table with exclamations that I was just like her! I thought this was amusing because she was simultaneously thinking me ridiculous for this precaution and likening me to herself. Perhaps believing oneself to be ridiculous is the key to happiness because Mary thoroughly enjoyed herself throughout our trip.

She kept asking me to raise the shade on our window so that we could see what it looked like outside, and each time the darkness of the night was astounding. We didn’t even see stars or clouds, it was just sheer blackness. I found myself pondering why there are no stars on this side of the earth, for surely there must be. There was only one episode of Dr. Who that I can recall when something terrible made the stars disappear, and rather than contemplate this further, I closed my window shade and offered Mary a stick of Juicy Fruit. She was so delighted that I would share my gum that she offered to take me home with her for coffee and breakfast upon our arrival in Sydney. Though I would have genuinely loved to have seen her home and appreciated her hospitality, I had to decline because I knew that my husband was somewhere across the earth anxiously calculating the hours until my arrival and that if I didn’t get to my hotel and email him as quickly as I could, he would presume that one of those dreadful Dr. Who things had indeed befallen me somewhere over a vast expanse of ocean.

We landed in Sydney in the unrelenting darkness with the watery lights of the city beneath us. Then my adventures really started.

PCAP in the New York Times!

31 Dec

I’m very pleased to report that Anna Clark, one of the Prison Creative Arts Project‘s dedicated alumni, wrote a piece about PCAP which appeared in today’s New York Timeshttp://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/31/opinion/inmate-improv.html?_r=0

Congratulations, Anna, and thank you for the wonderful work you continue to do in Michigan prisons!

Incarcerated Loved Ones, Prison Theatre, and Jesus the Lawbreaker

25 Nov

The Christian Courier recently published an interview that Angela Reitsma Bick, the magazine’s editor, conducted with me by phone shortly after my father’s release from prison. You can read it here.

I am grateful to Angela and the Courier for their willingness to treat incarceration as not only a serious issue but a matter of vital moral importance.

Rutgers Institute for Research on Women to host Groundbreaking Prison Arts Conference and Multi-Site Art Exhibition, October 8-10, 2014

6 Oct

The post below is verbatim the press release sent out by Sarah Tobias, the Associate Director of the Rutgers Institute for Research on Women. The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) will have both a panel (featuring me, Janie Paul, and Reuben Kenyatta) and an exhibition at the conference.  Additionally, all four of the PCAP staff–Graham Hamilton, Vanessa Mayesky, Shaka Senghor, and Heather Wilson–will be in attendance at the conference, as will Julia Taylor–a PCAP Associate (as we call our alumni) who will be speaking on a panel about the work she has done since leaving PCAP. The two pieces of art in this post were made by PCAP artists and are among those being used to advertise the conference. To see a range of some of the artwork being displayed at the conference, click here. For the full conference website, click here.

"Half Surrender" by Kinnari Jivani

“Half Surrender” by Kinnari Jivani

(New Brunswick, NJ, October 6, 2014) In August 2009, Ojore Lutalo was released from a New Jersey state prison after serving a 28 year sentence, including two decades in solitary confinement. During the years of his incarceration, Lutalo turned to art to help him get through the seemingly endless days and nights. Using text and images clipped from newspapers, Lutalo created a moving series of collages depicting his life behind bars. Stark and impressive, his art reveals the vital importance of creative expression and art-making for the millions serving time in United States prisons. Lutalo’s art will be displayed as part of a multi-site art exhibit held in conjunction with the Institute for Research on Women’s Marking Time: Prison Arts and Activism Conferencein New Brunswick, NJ on October 8 – 10, 2014

"The Way It Is" by Rafael de Jesus

“The Way It Is” by Rafael de Jesus

Lutalo’s use of art to communicate is not an exception. From photographs taken in visiting rooms to hand-etched illustrations in prisoner-written newsletters, art is an important vehicle for incarcerated people to convey their experiences.  Lutalo is not be the only artist whose work is displayed as part of the multi-site exhibition, which can be viewed at Alfa Art Gallery, Rutgers Art Library, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Heldrich Hotel, New Brunswick Public Library, and the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers for most of the month of October. Other contributing artists include Dean Gillespie, an artist exonerated through the work of the University of Cincinnati’s Innocence Project after serving 20 years in prison for crimes he did not commit.  Gillespie creates miniaturia, and four of his pieces, including a model of a dinette created from cigarette wrappers, will be on display in the Rutgers Art Library. Jesse Krimes, another formerly incarcerated artist, is displaying his epic Apokaluptein: 16389067, a work created from smuggled prison bed-sheets and newspaper clippings, at the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers-New Brunswick.  The New Brunswick Public Library will show photography by Ron Levine, whose work focuses on a rapidly increasing demographic group among prison populations – the elderly and aging – as well as a selection fromFamily Crisis Services’ More Than a Rap Sheet: The Real Stories of Incarcerated Women, featuring photographs of incarcerated women in Maine, accompanied by their poetry.  Alfa Art Gallery will host Prison Obscura, presenting rarely seen photography created by prisoners, the Heldrich Hotel will show the abstract paintings of formerly incarcerated artists Jaso Nomo and Gilberto Rivera, and artist Mark Strandquist will install his public art project Windows from Prison on the Eagleton Lawn at Rutgers as part of the program.

In addition to art on display at six locations across Rutgers campus and the City of New Brunswick, the program will include two days of film screenings in the Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Conference Room (162 Ryders Lane, New Brunswick, NJ).

“Art serves as an expressive tool, a means of political protest, and a creative survival strategy for many who are incarcerated,” said Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, the conference lead organizer who is writing a book about art made in prisons. “It also helps to challenge the dehumanization of the incarcerated. There is a huge gap between the dominant public perception of prisoners as lacking in value and their humanity and productivity. Prisoners are individuals who dream and envision brighter futures and who are cherished by families on the outside.” The conference accompanying the art exhibit includes three days of panels, workshops, lectures, poetry readings, performances, films, and presentations by artists, activists, scholars, and community groups. Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet and author of A Questions of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison and Shahid Reads His Own Palm, will give the keynote address.

The conference and exhibitions are free and open to the public. Please see the attached calendar for the Marking Timeconference and exhibitions schedule. For more information, visit irw.rutgers.edu or email the Institute for Research on Women at irw@rci.rutgers.edu.


This program is made possible in part by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, a state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. This program is also made possible by the generous support of the Puffin Foundation Ltd. Prison Obscura is a traveling exhibition curated by Pete Brook and made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.Organized by the Institute for Research on Women, the conference and multi-site exhibition co-sponsors include: Alfa Art Gallery; American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Program; Art Library-Rutgers New Brunswick; Associate Campus Dean of Douglass Residential College; Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities; Department of American Studies, Rutgers-New Brunswick; Heldrich Hotel; Department of History, Rutgers-New Brunswick; Institute for Women and Art, Mountainview Program; New Brunswick Public Library; Office of the Chancellor of Rutgers-New Brunswick; Office of the Executive Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers-New Brunswick; Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan; PUEG Center at UNAM (National University of Mexico); Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts; School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers-Newark; William James Association; Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers-New Brunswick.


Art Exhibition Dates:

Alfa Art Gallery

Prison Obscura Exhibition

In collaboration with Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and Campus Exhibitions and curator Matthew Seamus Callinan

Dates: Oct 7, 2014 – Nov 1, 2014

Gallery Hours: Tues- Sat 11am-6pm

Art Library-Rutgers

Paintings, backdrops and photographs by a range of artists

Dates: Oct 1, 2014 – Oct 31, 2014

Hours: Mon – Thurs 8:30 am – 10 pm; Fri – 8:30 am – 5 pm; Sat 10 am – 5 pm; Sun 2 pm – 10 pm

Eagleton Lawn

Mark Strandquist’s Windows from Prison (public art exhibition)

Dates: Oct 7 – 26, 2014

Hours: all day

Heldrich Hotel

Paintings, prints, and photographs by a range of artists

Dates: Oct 1- Oct 31, 2014

Gallery Hours: Normal business hours


New Brunswick Public Library

Paintings, lithographs, and photographs by a range of artists

Dates: Oct 1-Oct 26, 2014

Hours: Mon – Thurs 10 am to 9 pm; Fri & Sat 10 am to 5 pm; Sun 1 pm to 5 pm

Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers-New Brunswick

Jesse Krimes: Apokaluptein:16389067

Dates: Sept 2, 2014- Dec 14, 2014

Museum Hours:  Tues- Fri 10am-4:30pm; Sat-Sun noon-5pm; Art After Hours: First Tuesdays (open to the public), Tues, Oct 7, 5pm-9pm

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!

Theatre Programming in a Women’s Prison in Durban, South Africa

19 Aug

I’m in Rio de Janeiro with my University of Michigan students but trying to catch up on blogging about my South Africa trip before I launch into our adventures in Brazil. More to come soon.

Durban is a lovely beach town.

Durban is a lovely beach town. Since I couldn’t take pictures of the prison, this will have to do for an illustration.

Durban, South Africa is a beautiful seaside town–not exactly the place where you’d expect to find an enormous complex of prisons known as the Westville Correctional Facility. Andy and I were introduced to both Durban and Westville by Miranda Young-Jahangeer, a professor of drama and performance studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Miranda has been doing theatre work inside Westville for the past fourteen years. She’s worked with men and youth at the prison at different times, but she prefers to work with incarcerated women and has focused on them throughout most of her time at Westville.

Miranda drove us about twenty minutes outside of Durban to the prison.  Separate men’s and women’s prisons as well as youth facilities can be found inside the fences of the Westville complex, as can several rows of apartments for prison staff members and their families. One staff person told us that she chose to live inside the gates of the prison because the facility provides bus service for her child to attend the local school. She had lived somewhere outside the prison walls but had chosen to move into the staff housing in the prison complex for reasons of convenience, despite the fact that she does not like her job.

The guard at the main gate to the prison knew Miranda, and she signed a register before we drove through the entrance to the facility. The prison complex is vast, and we did not even come close to seeing all of it. Miranda parked near the women’s prison, and when we entered the building, we each signed a sheet at the front desk. We did not show identification, answer any questions, or get patted down. A guard gave visitors’  badges to me and Miranda (but not Andy because apparently men don’t need them at the women’s prison), unlocked a metal gate, and let us into the prison. Everyone there seemed to know Miranda, and undoubtedly her long relationship with this particular prison made entering it far easier than it would be for other people. In Michigan prisons, even when we know the staff well, my students and I still face some pretty significant security measures–advance security clearance, identification, metal detectors, pat downs, lots of questions about our plans for the day. It felt very odd to be able to gain access to a prison so easily in a country so vigilant about security. Miranda reminded me that the folks who run prisons in South Africa can be every bit as capricious and changeable as their U.S. counterparts. Prison authorities at Westville have have moved or cancelled performances and activities at the last minute, and Miranda has seen other groups try unsuccessfully to gain access to this facility which she and her students enter with relative ease. Prisons are nothing if not full of contradictions.

A prison staff member named Veli has worked with Miranda for many years, helping to set up the theatre workshops inside the facility. Veli’s brother had held the same position at this prison, and when he passed away, she took his place. When I asked Veli if it had taken time to build a solid working relationship with Miranda, she said that took up right where her brother left off. He had had a positive relationship with Miranda and her work in the prison, and Veli saw no reason to feel differently. Veli and Miranda led us up a flight of stairs and into a small activities room with several desks with sewing machines on them. The theatre workshop is on hiatus for a few weeks but will start up again in late August or early September. Unfortunately our travel schedule wouldn’t permit us to make the trip during a time when we could see the workshop in action. Instead we had a conversation with Miranda, Veli, and one of the incarcerated women (whom I’ll call P.) who has been doing theatre in the prison for nearly all of the fourteen years Miranda has been facilitating workshops there.

When P. came into the room, she greeted each of us with big hugs, and I was startled at how comfortable she felt in doing that, particularly with Andy–a man she’d never met. In the U.S. physical contact is strictly monitored, particularly between visitors and prisoners and between people of opposite genders. Often women in prison do not feel especially safe around men, and in the U.S. it would be even more unlikely for a prisoner and visitor to have physical contact with a prison staff person in the room. We didn’t see any male staff members working at the women’s prison, and Miranda tells me that very few male staff work there. That might explain the apparent lack of restrictions on physical touch. However, Miranda also reports that the number of incarcerated women in South Africa who report having been sexually or physically abused is above the global average, which hovers around 80%. This refers to abuse incurred prior to incarceration. I would assume that the predominantly single gender environment in female prisons in South Africa greatly reduces the amount of sexual abuse that women endure during incarceration. After reading an early draft of this blog post, Miranda also noted that P.’s hugging is a cultural signifier of her role as an older woman in the prison, a mother figure. A younger woman would not have hugged us so effortlessly, but P. did so as a way of showing that she trusts us and that we are welcome in her space.

The three of them–Miranda, Veli, and P.–asked about our work and why we were interested in theatre in prisons, and then they told us about some of the workshops and performances they have done together. Miranda teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in which students come into the prison to do theatre work. Her students will sometimes develop a performance of their own for the prisoners as a way of starting a conversation about a relevant social issue. At other times, the students work with the prisoners to devise an original performance–sometimes in response to the performance the students brought into the prison.

P. loves to sing, and music is an integral part of each performance. Most South African prisons have a choir inside them, and once a year the national Correctional Services will pay to bring the incarcerated choirs from across the country to the same prison to have a choral competition. This astounded me. The only time that I’ve ever heard of prisoners going from one institution to another to perform in the U.S. was for a huge play called The Life of Jesus Christ at Angola prison in Louisiana. For that production, which in recent years has been revived once or twice a year, women from a prison a few towns away are brought to Angola to rehearse and perform in this enormous passion play. That only requires coordination between two prisons.  I can’t imagine what a logistical feat it must be to move incarcerated choirs (presumably men and women) from all corners of South Africa to a single location for a competition. A 2007 documentary film called The Choir follows one group of prisoners to the National Prison Choir Competition.  I haven’t seen the film (if anyone knows how to acquire a copy, I’d be grateful for the information), but I’d love to see both the film and the actual competition itself some day.

Apparently most of the theatre work that these folks have done together in Westville has dealt with social issues of one kind or another, including HIV/AIDS, gender discrimination, and the poor treatment of prisoners. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, this is not a thing we can do in most of the U.S. because prison administrators feel that any critique of the system could lead to unrest or violence amongst the prison population. This does not seem to be the case in South Africa–or at least not in the work of theatre folks and prisoners I met. I was trying to explain to Miranda, Veli, and P. that we can’t even mention prison guards in our plays, and Veli said that if they couldn’t make fun of the guards, they wouldn’t have ever a play.  Mocking the guards has been a major point of comic relief in their productions, and for the most part the guards don’t seem to mind.

In one notable production the women in the prison were responding to the terrible conditions at the prison clinic. The AIDS epidemic was claiming many lives, and often the bodies of prisoners remained in beds at the clinic for days before being removed for burial. This meant that other women confined to the clinic would have to lay for days on end next to the dead bodies of their friends. The play that the women devised about this situation included a character of a particularly unkind nurse in the clinic, and Miranda didn’t realize until the performance of the play that the nurse in question was not only a real person but was being represented in such a way that she was totally recognizable to the entire prison audience. The nurse was in the audience of the performance along with 250 incarcerated women, and at some point during the play, the nurse got up and fled the courtyard where the play was taking place. As the nurse ran away, the women in the audience all raised their arms above their head and shouted “la la la la la,” mocking her in unison. In a bizarre twist of fate, that same nurse ended up becoming a prisoner at Westville sometime later, and she joined the theatre group and became a much-beloved member of the troupe.

A performance like this would have shut down a prison theatre program in the U.S., but seemingly the only enduring consequence of this at Westville is that the audiences for the group’s plays are now much smaller. Big gatherings of the entire prison population for the sake of a performance are no longer possible, but the theatre group endures.

In thinking about the theatre work at Westville, I’m struck by how much national context and culture matter in terms of what is and is not permissible inside prisons. The legacy of Apartheid in South Africa has left people throughout the country with a publicly acknowledged sense that prisons often enforce the unjust whims of the government. In the U.S. we tend to defend our own sense of righteousness and see prisons as one part of the long arm of justice, believing that the people inside them brought all the negative aspects of their confinement upon themselves. During our trip, someone in South Africa told me that everyone in the country knows someone in prison or someone who was incarcerated at some point. South Africa has the highest incarceration rate in the continent, but the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yet most of the folks I meet in my own country genuinely believe that they have never known someone who served time. This can’t possibly be true of the majority of us, but the cultural silence and stigmas surrounding incarceration prevent us from having meaningful conversations about it. South Africans continue to struggle with myriad social problems, including mass incarceration, but their ability to speak openly about this particular type of injustice is one of the things that made it possible for a former prisoner to become president and lead the country into a new era of democracy. This ability to acknowledge the problem of mass incarceration fueled by racism has certainly not led to greater justice or a significant reduction in the prison population, but I can’t help feeling like the ability to name and discuss this issue has to be a step in the right direction. How can we move towards a higher form of justice unless we can honestly describe both the world in which we now live and–to paraphrase Ghandi–the change we would like to see in our lives.


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