Reflections on Doin’ Time Performance by Nina Billone Prieur

10 Sep

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.

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