Black and White

Today was a chaotic day. I am not the greatest time keeper in the world but today we had to keep on a strict schedule. Figure out Friday’s lineup, watch scenes and sing or play a game at the end. Meg did a wonderful job keeping us on task while I made a valiant effort to not get sidetracked. The women also performed a heroic feat by waiting to take a bathroom break until the end of class. Some days, they are shuffled over to us without any break beforehand. We usually allow a break for women who need it, but today there was some kerfluffle with another group being out in the hallway and so an appropriate break time never occurred. By the end of class, the women themselves were hurrying us up so they could get to the bathroom. I understand that jail isn’t really jail if all the inmates can run around unsupervised, but at the same time I have a real problem with regulating bathroom time. It puts adults back in the realm of childhood, where even bodily functions must be monitored. When anyone asks to use the restroom, I want to let them. I’d rather let a few people go who just wanted to leave the room than have anyone squirming in their seat because they can’t fulfill a basic bodily need.

Despite the bathroom conundrum, today was a productive day. We figured out a plan for Friday that showcases almost everything we’ve created over the past five weeks. They even want to sing “Killing Me Softly” which makes me so happy I can barely explain it. One of the new women (there are new women every class) volunteered to play guitar for us, if we can get a guitar into the jail. I’m not optimistic about our chances, but we’ll see. As we come to the end of this workshop, I’m becoming a bit sad and frustrated that I won’t really get to know these new faces. Of the new women today, one is a musician and another a dancer. Several were excited about Friday’s sharing, even though today was their first class. One woman specifically asked to be included in a movement exercise and a couple of others were enthusiastic about warm-ups and disappointed that they hadn’t been able to participate in the scenes. I wish we could be there on an ongoing basis, so that we would able to continually reach the women coming in.

The scenes today were great to watch. We started out with six scenes, but due to women leaving, only three could be shown today. Two of the scenes were the same – a teacher/student argument scene from Sweet Little Thing by Roy Williams. In it, a teacher makes a final effort to reach a difficult student. Two different pairs showed it; in one pair both women were white, in the other they were African-American. The scenes had very different energies – one was a little quieter and the women sat for most of it, while the other was higher energy and the actors walked around the space more – they stood up and sat down quite a few times. What I found most interesting was the women’s reactions to it. When I asked how they felt the two interpretations differed, one of the women said that she felt like the white woman’s scene had a more Lean on Me feel, as if it was a scene from a different era. The African-American women’s scene was said to be more ‘real’, more ‘East side’ and even ‘ghetto.’ Some of this came from the higher energy in the African-American women’s scene but I also commented that I thought the women were using those words specifically because the actresses were black. The program coordinator of PRIDE has mentioned racial tension in the past, so I wanted to point out the group’s quickness to label the African-American scene as more authentic, more street while categorizing the white women’s scene as ‘Sweet Valley High’. Because of time constraints, we didn’t get to have the in-depth discussion that would be appropriate but I hope that by pointing out this tendency, I can make the group a little more aware of it.

Meg mentioned that she would like to see the scenes cross cast, to mix up the ethnicities and see how that changed the viewers’ perceptions. Once again, it’s always a time constraint. Women come, women go – we also come and go in these five week increments. If we could commit to a much longer stay, these discussions could continue even as women came and went. A really positive aspect of new women coming in is that the ‘old timers’, so to speak, can introduce the newcomers into the class and take on a bit of the instructor role. If we had the time to discuss these issues in depth, I think that women would educate each other not only on our theatre games, but on the conversations we’ve and the ideas we’ve explored.

But for now, we work within our constraints and we do a good job of it. Our performance will be this Friday at 10 am inside Travis County Correctional Complex. Inmates and staff are invited; I’ve also invited three people from the outside to come watch. I will be asking them to write a few hundred words about their experience at the performance. I’m really looking forward to this Friday and I believe that it’s going to be a fantastic event.

-Katherine Craft

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