Last month I visited the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women to talk about the Jewish High Holidays and their themes of repentance, prayer and return. I felt brave and foolish. What did I, a middle-aged, middle-class guy who'd spent all of two nights in a county jail, have to say to this group of convicted murderers, armed robbers and other felons?
Before incarceration, these women-- the population is equally divided white and black, had been cheerleaders, wives, students and workers; most are mothers. Many were sentenced to more than 30 years and have already served over 10 years of "hard time." Some are scheduled for release in the next several years.
Nonetheless, we connected. When I blew the ceremonial ram's horn, or shofar, they asked about its symbolic wakeup call to the soul. The class--Cassandra, Cheryl, Jacque, Lisa, Pamela and Regina--was focused, respectful and curious. A far cry from those I'd taught in Sunday School 15 years before.
This Saturday at 1 p.m. at the UNC Student Union, these women will perform their own work, an ensemble piece derived from their prison writings. The debut performance of "Doing MORE THAN Time" is open to the public. It is hosted by the Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education (SCALE) in conjunction with its national conference.
The performance is the product of The North Carolina Women's Prison Writing and Performance Project. Created last year by my neighbor Judith Reitman, a journalist and author, the project is now under the Sonja Hayes Stone Black Cultural Center at UNC. It relies solely on outside support but received a seed money grant from the Carolina Center for Public Service.
Reitman stresses the project's transformative power. "When these embattled women find their own words, their sense of victimization and urge to act out rage evaporates. The workshops are safe places for them to tell their stories and reflect on their lives." She hopes this performance will engage public debate about mitigating violence by and against women.
"Doing MORE THAN Time" is directed by Jennifer Lanier, an actor and teacher at the N.C. School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. "Once they got past their shyness," Lanier told me, "there's been this surge of energy and a passion to communicate. I have a really good bullshit meter and there isn't any in this writing."
I discovered I desired him,
this tall jet black man,
beads of sweat
dripping off his face and chest.
I was a waterfall
Roving, then succumbing like
a red fish after the hook
jagged it in the eye.
I met him on the bus to the county jail in L.A. We were mentally compatible. I knew it was going to work out when I got out. He said he was going to walk the straight and narrow. He got out in January 2001.
He's dead now. His mother wrote me. He was shot in the neck on June 1st. She buried him on June 12. Didn't even make it to his birthday, June 19th. He would have been 24. I cried.