Incarcerated. It’s a roadblock of a word, reverberating like the padlock pound of prison bars slamming closed. But you can look at bars two ways: at the solid steel barriers or at the free space in between. A group at the N.C. Women’s Prison in Raleigh are emphatically seizing the latter.
The Women’s Prison Writing and Performing Project takes to the stage at Carrboro’s ArtsCenter on Saturday, Aug. 23, in its second-ever performance. For two years, volunteer and professional artists have spent time with women at the prison, writing and turning their works into performance pieces. Program leaders estimate that 70 women have participated in the project, which is sponsored by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Jordan Institute for Families in the school of social work.
The project’s stunning public debut came last October, on UNC’s campus. After the seven women finished their performance–a series of dramatized spoken-word reflections on grief, regret, life in prison and the way to hope–an audience in tears gave a standing ovation, then surged forward and embraced the women. “We didn’t think we’d be as welcomed as we were, as loved and appreciated,” says Regina, one of the performing women and a core member of the group. “That made us feel good that people were relating, especially other women,” says Cassandra, another core member and inmate. “They looked at us and saw themselves.”
“It was the first time inmates at a prison in North Carolina have been allowed outside a prison to perform,” says Judith Reitman, founder and executive director of the project. “I wouldn’t call it entertainment, I’d call it more a heart-breaking-open performance. The audience gets to know these women, and through a very galvanizing process–and it is a very galvanizing process, and it’s not fun–these women gain back a lot of their positive power, their strength.”
In June, Reitman brought in Julie Fishell, from UNC’s department of dramatic art and a resident member of PlayMakers Repertory Company. Fishell has worked to turn the women’s monologues into a performance piece, but the women have been eager to capture the catharsis. One of the women once wondered if a relative of her murdered victim might shoot her at the show. “She said, ‘Well, I guess that would be justice,’” Fishell says. “She kind of laughed. The next day she came in and she had rewritten her pieces, and now it has in it a conversation that’s directed to those family members. I think she’s saying ‘I’m sorry,’ and dealing with her guilt. The piece was so much more powerful.”
Reitman intends to have the women perform at other venues and other state women’s prisons, and hopes the program, which is currently seeking funding, might eventually serve as a model for other institutions, helping drastically to battle the prejudice against inmates returning to society. “[The project] lets other women know that if you have the potential and the skill, then you can put it out there,” Regina says. “There are so many women that are incarcerated that are talented, and we’re here to let society know that.”
The performance begins at 8 p.m. at the Carrboro ArtsCenter’s West End Theatre, Saturday, Aug. 23; tickets are $6. Howard Lee, chairman of the state department of education, will host a reception afterwards. Visit
www.artscenterlive.org for information.