Today was the highly anticipated return of La Tasha Stephens to the jail. No Friday the 13th would be complete without at least a threat of disaster, so I spent a good twenty minutes this morning convinced that it wouldn’t happen at all. Unbeknownst to me (okay, okay – forgotten by me), today was a 10:00 day, so when Ms. Stephens and I showed up at the jail ready to roll at 8:30 am, no one would let her in. I’m good (unless I’m late, of course) but somewhere in the two weeks since La Tasha’s last visit, the paperwork or the gods of corrections or something took her name off of an important list and no amount of earnest looks at the officers could convince them to allow her access.
Good lord, I thought, did I screw everything up again? I charged to the Education building and found one lone soul who tried her best to help me, to no avail. Only Jennifer Scott, head of PRIDE and all around savior, could rescue the day and get La Tasha to me. A couple more staff wandered by.
“Have you seen Jennifer?” I desperately asked.
“She’s in visitation. talking to some woman. And the officers.”
Phew! That some woman had to be La Tasha! And it was! And then I found out we were early, super duper early. No wonder Officer Warren had given me a strange look when I burst in babbling, “I’m here! I’m not late! I’m trying to get La Tasha in!”
“I was wondering what you were doing,” he chuckled when I sheepishly walked by him again, “but I didn’t say anything.”
Since we were so early, Jennifer took u to see the building where the women actually live. It was nothing like I imagined – instead of cells or even a dormitory style space, there were long hallways with heavy doors that led to atrium-esque living spaces. The PRIDE women are housed in a room that almost circular, with what I’ll call recessed nooks (although they are not cozy) that each hold three beds (two stacked on each other and third next to that). The middle of the circle contains some metal tables, a sink, some bathroom stalls and a staircase up to the second floor, which I assume holds more of the same.
“I want everyone to be awake and ready to go at 10!” Jennifer announced. Most of the women were up, but one groaned sleepily from her bed.
“We’re performing your piece, today,” I told her. “You should get up and come.” She rolled out of bed and bushed her teeth. Jennifer, La Tasha and I went back to the Education building where I set up the classroom. When the women arrived, we did our freewriting and stretching – to Amy Winehouse, which elicited many comments about her “Rehab” song and gave a good beat to wake us up.
After an icebreaker and a game, we sat in a circle and La Tasha got out her script. Two weeks ago, the women in my class wrote stories, stories from their lives and gave them to La Tasha, who then took the stories and created a script, titled Love to You. She conceived the play as an inmate sitting in a group – a group counseling session maybe, or a support group – and telling her story. She played both the inmate and the group leader, who gently guides the piece with questions and the occasional comment. Putting us in the circle with her made us part of that support group and made us all feel very connected to the character. La Tasha is unafraid to make eye contact and intentionally finds moments to connect with and elicit responses from the audience.
It was a quiet, painful piece. The thread that La Tasha found between the stories was one of unconditional love – having it, not having it, seeking it, finding it. In her hands, these multiple stories became one tale of needing love, finding it and what gets in the way of it. The class was quiet and intent on her, only breaking the spell to whisper to each other when they recognized their own writing or another’s.
One woman, Ms. S, had written about the death of her fellow inmate and friend, Ms. D. She called her Old School in her written piece and La Tasha brought that part in, talked about Old School and the friendship they shared, how Old School’s death had affected her. I saw several women wipe away tears at that point. Ms. D’s death was a shock for all of us and this felt like a fitting tribute to her.
The piece ended with a powerful poem written by a long term inmate whose writing I have gotten the chance to know and admire. I hadn’t realized how strong the imagery was – lines about seeking happiness and wanting to be home with her children – until they were read out loud to a group of women nodding their heads in agreement, wiping away tears and echoing its sentiments on their faces.
When La Tasha finished, a moment of silence fell. Then applause – loud and sincere. They were so pleased! I asked for words about how they felt and I got “privileged, enthused, inspired, vulnerable.” Ms. S said, “I’d pay to see this!” Ms. P, whose poem ended the script, said, “I didn’t realize how powerful my poem was until I heard you read it.” Several of the new women asked if they could write pieces to contribute to the next iteration of the script. They smiled and laughed. They thanked La Tasha, they thanked Jennifer and myself. It was emotional and powerful – uplifting.
Three of the women have finished the PRIDE program; they’ve completed to classes necessary for graduation, so they gave their speeches in our class today, thanking us for the work that we do. Ms. L said, “My heart was hard before I came in here. I never cried – I couldn’t. Now I’m a big crybaby!” Once again I heard, “This is only place where we get treated like human beings instead of numbers. This is the only place where we get to laugh together – we make connections in here.”
La Tasha talked about her process of writing and editing the script, and what she found interesting about each of the women’s pieces. I hadn’t expected that part, but it was great because each woman who contributed got a bit of special attention, a bit of “here’s why your thoughts are so important”. And they wanted to see Jack again! La Tasha laughingly obliged, performing the character of Jack Natty from her one woman show I’m not a writer but I got a story to tell… It’s a funny monologue and the class was howling with laughter. It was a good way to shift the mood.
I also presented La Tasha with Conspire Theatre’s first annual Guest Artist of the Year Award! Her generosity and artistry truly enriched the women’s lives and taught me several valuable lessons about my own practice. She inspired us all and I expect to hear great things about her in the future. Good luck in L.A., Ms. Stephens!
Final Note: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much hard work and general amazing-ness Jennifer Scott puts forth in her position at the Travis County jail. Not only did she create PRIDE but she continues to serve as a bastion of support for women incarcerated there, and she deals with the daily headaches of organizing a shifting group of volunteers and employees. There are some weeks when I email her way too many times asking for far too many things and she has been gracious and supportive for all of it. And somehow, she is a fantastic person on top of all of it. So thanks, Jennifer! Conspire would never have gotten off the ground without you!