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The Spaces of Engagement of The Medea Project, Theater for Incarcerated Women


The Medea Project is a theater program for incarcerated women at the San Francisco County Jail. Under the direction of founder Rhodessa Jones, the program seeks to explore "whether an arts-based approach could help reduce the numbers of women returning to jail" through workshops and public performances. This essay introduces the work of the Medea Project with a focus on the boundary crossings of these women's bodies, their stories and the multiple spaces they inhabit as new communities grow and emerge.

"I want to open the doors of this jail with a performance."
–Rhodessa Jones

Andrea Justin rises to give testimony to surviving an abusive marriage and a downward spiral into drug abuse and imprisonment.[1] She is surrounded on stage by the women who have traveled with her from the San Francisco County Jail to the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre for the performance of Buried Fire, which premiered in January 1996, by The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women.[2] What is striking about Buried Fire and the other performances put on by the Medea Project is the community that comes together to create these public performances—local artists, choreographers, dancers, dramaturges, ex-offenders, midwives, scholars, social workers, and most importantly, female inmates who traverse the boundary between the spaces of the prison and the theater. In this essay I introduce the work of the Medea Project, paying particular attention to the boundary crossings of these women's bodies and their stories and the multiple spaces they inhabit as new communities grow and emerge.

The Medea Project's remarkable 17-year history began with the vision of the performance artist and social activist Rhodessa Jones to explore "whether an arts-based approach could help reduce the numbers of women returning to jail."[3] Jones, who first held movement workshops with incarcerated women in the San Francisco County Jail #7 in the late 1980s, decided to create an ensemble at the prison after the success of her one-woman show based on the lives of four inmates in her class, Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women.[4] With the help of Sean Reynolds, a social worker and health educator at the prison, Jones assembled a group of artists and activists to work with the inmates to write and stage original works to be performed in professional theaters for public audiences.[5] As Jones explains in the film We Just Telling Stories,[6] the group encourages "the incarcerated woman to examine her participation in her own incarceration through the medium of theater."

Jones and her team first hold workshops in the prison with the inmates, using self-exploration techniques like storytelling, movement, dream-gazing, journal-writing, and truth-telling, to name a few. In these workshops, the incarcerated women are asked "where you've been" and encouraged to share their stories, ranging from recollections of childhood experiences of sexual violations by family members to the difficulty of being without one's children. As the tears in the women's eyes attest, this is an emotionally difficult and rich experience for those who participate in the workshop. "It's all right," we hear Jones comforting a woman who has bravely shared her story, "you're alive, baby. You lived to tell the story." Jones expects the women to share stories, to "reenact their own and those of others, to reshape their pasts and presents."[7]

These stories of self-exploration are often framed by mythic narratives, what Sara Warner calls the "mythic roots of Medea Project storytelling," an "activist aesthetic grounded in revisionist mythology."[8] Jones explains the workshop process to the women: "We 'take a myth, fairytale, story, and we build a piece interpreting the story from our own experiences.'"[9] After the myth is introduced, the women are given writing assignments designed to "encourage participants to examine the material and social conditions that result in their incarceration and to assist the inmates in the creation of material that can be crafted into scripts for the public performance."[10] The Medea myth, which framed the project's first performance, Reality Is Just Outside the Window (1992), came to Jones's attention because an inmate had killed her own baby; it served to structure monologues during the performance that dealt with betrayal, abandonment, and anger.[11] Other "foundation myths" that have been used include a revision of the Demeter and Persephone myth to explore the victimization and criminalization of women in Food Taboos in the Land of the Dead (1993), the figure of Sisyphus to dramatize the cyclical patterns of addiction and recovery in A Taste of Something Else: A Place at the Table (1994), and the ugly duckling fairytale to explore the incarcerated women's story of pain and degradation and transformation in Buried Fire.[12] In connecting the personal with the mythical and providing more context for these women, Jones wants the women to see their individual stories not in isolation but in relation to others.[13]

"I am Mary, mother of Benjamin, daughter of Mary, granddaughter of Sadie," an inmate quickly states during a workshop. She is admonished by Reynolds: "Slow down, please. This is important." Having heard that inmates have mothers and children who are dead, Reynolds asks the women to "please name these people, please name them, so that we will not forget them." This is one of the naming techniques used in workshops and performances to remember one's matrilineal heritage.[14] Not only does a sense of solidarity emerge as family histories are shared, but also an opportunity for telling one's story and remembering the past. By surrounding these women's stories with more context, whether drawing a connection to the women in the myths that the Medea Project incorporates into their performances or naming one's matrilineal heritage, these women become a part of a larger "imagined community," a genealogy of women who have faced the same struggles that they have faced. Within this space, many women tell their stories for the first time and learn that they are not alone in what they have experienced.

The space created in these workshops also allows for the reclaiming of a loss of communication and cooperation among the prisoners. Jones noticed that there was not a sense of community among the women, and she wanted to instill the need to work as an ensemble.[15] One way Jones fosters the practice of community among these women is through the practice of coordinating movements like "kicking dance" and "hand dancing,"[16] where women experience what it is like to lead and be part of a community. The women also participate in a "womb circle ritual," an integral part of the Medea workshop process where one person, eyes closed, stands in the middle of a circle as the women gently pass her body from one hand to another while quietly singing a prayer.[17]

In addition to the telling of these stories, the project also recognizes the importance of interpreting, of making the connection from the personal to the social.[18] The pedagogical thrust of the Medea Project, as Rena Fraden explains, is "aimed at uncovering the connections between an individual and the system of power" because Jones and Reynolds believe that "critical literacy—understanding social context, moving with others and not alone—will transform the oppressed and apathetic into people who believe they can think and thus act for themselves and also for others."[19] This is one of the markers of success of the Medea Project: the attempt at the re-anchoring of the self in a public sphere and an awareness of a "social context" for finding different ways to re-plot one's life once an inmate walks outside of the doors of the prison. "Theater is about transformation," Jones tells the women in the workshop, "it's about re-inventing yourself."

Jones has succeeded in obtaining permission from the sheriff's office for some of the incarcerated women to perform outside of the jail; the only physical signs of the women's incarcerated status are the wristbands they have to wear and the guards sitting down in front of the audience.[20] As part of the deal with the sheriff's office, the women have to stay on stage and be visible at all times. The incarcerated women who sign up with the project have mobility, as temporary and restricted as it is, from one space to another; Jones hopes that the movements they practice in the workshops and on stage will "invigorate and reorganize their sense of self."[21] Further, the space of the theater allows for a re-imagining of the real: "a new category of the real is established, even if only provisionally in the space of the workshop and public performance, a reality in and during which the women act out different versions of powerful stories."[22]

The Medea Project challenges the problematic invisibility of incarcerated populations, especially what Angela Davis see as the "hyper-invisibility of women prisoners,"[23] in the crossing of these women's bodies and their stories into the space of the theater. The general structure of a public performance consists of a series of performance pieces based on inmates' responses to the foundation myth,[24] between a fluid juxtaposition of individual monologues, songs, and group-dancing; "old-time wisdom, myths, and spiritual histories are brought into relation with contemporary women, who sometimes stand alone to tell their individual stories and sometimes sing and dance together en masse."[25] The public performances "make visible what has been repressed and oppressed."[26] Some of the performances even engage with the risks of coming into visibility, particularly the further racialization and sexualization of certain bodies. The performance of Food Taboos in the Land of the Dead, which explores the desires to which the body becomes addicted, is an example of the challenge the Medea Project places before itself and the audience, where the display of sexuality creates a fine line between reinforcing and critiquing the ways women are seen.[27]

Fraden writes that the Medea Project is interested in an "investigation of the plots that lead to imprisonment—the causes for addiction, rage, recidivism—in hopes that by asking certain questions, the women might not count on miracles but instead plot a different course."[28]> Was Andrea Justin re-plotting her course when she decided to join the Medea Project after she had left prison and was living in Milestones, a residential drug treatment program? As one San Francisco Chronicle writer notes, "What happens onstage in a Medea Project production may ultimately matter less than the lives of the participants transformed in the process."[29] "We, at the Medea Project, have discovered that this empowers the incarcerated woman, while helping her to explore her creativity, [to] confront her personal problems," explains Jones, "to take control of and possibly save her own life."

As the Medea Project investigates the different plots that have led to imprisonment, Jones is aware that the "traditional plot" cannot change for most of these women unless more people partake in its redesign and recognize that we share similar plots, but also find different ways to change them by becoming more socially active citizens.[30] In her assessment of the audience's response to Medea performances, Jones notes, "I think that they're moved, they're inspired, they're ennobled, they're shocked." Jones wants "her theater to be a call to community, to thinking about what a proper community should look like and what sorts of social action would have to take place to bring that community into being."[31]

Ever since their first performance, Reality is Just Outside the Window in 1992, the Medea Project has been staging productions at such San Francisco venues as the Theatre Artaud, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, and the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens. Last summer, the Medea Project performed and received a standing ovation at the first Network of Ensemble Theater Festival in Blue Lake, California, and performed She and Other Stories at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The work of the Medea Project is now reaching an international audience. Last year, Jones and Idris Ackamoor, executive/co-artistic director of Cultural Odyssey, conducted workshops in prisons in Johannesburg, South Africa and Collegno, Italy with female inmates in the Medea Project process. The Medea Project is on its way to becoming a global "model for transforming and rehabilitating female inmates utilizing the performing arts."[23]

Elizabeth W. Son is a doctoral student in American Studies at Yale University. She has a B.A. in English from Wellesley College and her M.Phil. from the University of Cambridge.

End Notes

  [1] Rena Fraden, Imagining Medea: Rhodessa Jones & Theater for Incarcerated Women. (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001) 165-170.Fraden165-170.

  [2] The Medea Project is a program of the San Francisco-based arts organization Cultural Odyssey, founded in 1979 by Idris Ackamoor and joined by Rhodessa Jones as co-artistic director in 1983. Cultural Odyssey develops original and creative performances by artists of all cultures.


  [4] Sue Adolphson, "Cultural Odyssey: A Jail Break, Professional Actresses, Inmates to Stage Plays," The San Francisco Chronicle, February 28, 1993, Sunday edition, 31. Sara L. Warner, "The Medea Project: Mythic Theater for Incarcerated Women," Feminist Studies Vol. 30, No. 2 (2004), 483.

  [5] Warner 483.

  [6] We Just Telling Stories, dir. Lawrence Andrews, prod. Idris Ackamoor, videocassette, Cultural Odyssey and Captivating Souls, 2000. This film chronicles the four-month process of the production of Just Telling Stories (1998) by the Medea Project. Five incarcerated women participated in the public performance.

  [7] Fraden 69.

  [8] Warner 485.

  [9] Warner 491.

  [10] Warner 502.

  [11] Fraden 71.

  [12] Warner 486-487.

  [13] Fraden 21.

  [14] In each production, the women perform what is called a "matrilineage," as each woman names her own children, mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers (Fraden 107). Jones believes that such a technique reinforces a woman's connection to her own experience and helps the women claim their own past (Fraden 107).

  [15] Fraden 101.

  [16] In "kicking dance," the women stand in line and together break out in fighting movements, not towards each other but straight ahead, and then together they stop, arms to the side, and step back; this usually takes place at some incredibly emotional point in the performance where the audience and women on stage need some release (Fraden 97). "Hand dancing," different from sign language, is a set of hand movements that the women perform in tandem with prayers or other chants (Fraden 98).

  [17] Warner 491.

  [18] Fraden 21.

  [19] Fraden 70.

  [20] Fraden 11, 102.

  [21] Fraden 103-104.

  [22] Fraden 70.

  [23] Angela Davis, "Globalism and the Prison Industrial Complex: An Interview With Angela Davis," Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power, and People, ed. Avery Gordon (Boulder: Paradigm Press, 2004), 55.

  [24] Warner 504.

  [25] Fraden 9.

  [26] Fraden 1.

  [27] Fraden 113-119. In spite of exaggeration or parody, some could mistake the meaning of the women opening their legs or dressing like prostitutes as victimizing. While Faden believes that the point becomes obvious that such representation makes the audience think critically about their preconceptions of what constitutes reality (Fraden 119), I am hesitant to accept that everyone gets it. Of course such performances attract a certain group of people who are already in touch with what the Medea Project seeks to do in prisons and on stage, but I wonder what happens when there are disjunctures in these exchanges of representations and meaning.

  [28] Fraden 17.

  [9] Steven Winn, "Acting Out Recovery Onstage," The San Francisco Chronicle, February16, 1994, F3.

  [30] Fraden 17.

  [31] Fraden 3.




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