You don’t need to look farther than the huge new jail being constructed over by Broad and Tulane to be reminded that Louisiana is the incarceration capital of the world. According to The Times-Picayune, one in 86 people is behind bars in Louisiana and one in seven black men in New Orleans is either in prison, on parole, or on probation. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of women in prison is increasing at nearly double the rate for men, with a third of incarcerated women charged with drug-related offenses. Behind these alarming figures—evidence of what activist Michelle Alexander has dubbed “The New Jim Crow”—are stories that need to be told.
The Graduates, a theater ensemble of formerly incarcerated women, are performing their powerful new work, Do You See Me? this month at Ashé Cultural Arts Center. According to co-director Ausettua Amor Amenkum of Kumbuka African Dance and Drum Collective, the performance will “Connect with the strength of the human spirit and the ability to survive and overcome one of the most dehumanizing experiences—the prison industrial complex.” I posed some questions about the upcoming performance to ensemble members Sherral Kahey and Carry Emerson, as well as co-director Kathy Randels, of ArtSpot Productions.
How did the Graduates come into existence?
Kathy Randels: I started working at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in 1996, performing and then leading a performance workshop for the women that was intended to be six months. Ausettua Amor Amenkum and two drummers from Kumbuka African Dance and Drum Collective came to work with us in 2000 and Ausettua has since become my co- director with the Drama Club. In 2012, we received a grant to start the Graduates. This was an idea Ausettua and I had for many years and we needed some seed funding to get us started on this journey… It’s been really special for us to reconnect to these women on the outside and for all of us to be part of one another’s lives, work, and growth. It’s also been amazing to be able to finally share this powerful work we’ve been doing for 19 years “On the inside” with friends, family, and audiences “On the outside.”
What is the newest piece from the Graduates? What themes does it explore? How was the piece developed?
Sherral Kahey: Currently the Graduates group is working on expanding our debut performance, Do You See Me?, which told of four totally different aspects of incarceration and the impact and effects it had on the individuals. The Graduates want to take that piece and add to it to bring it into the “Now.” Each of us has been out of prison for a number of years, so where have we gone, how has our incarceration helped, hindered, or hoisted us toward the next level on this continuing journey called life?
How is the work you do with the Graduates different from the work you do with the Drama Club at LCIW? How does the work change post-incarceration?
Carry Emerson: As an incarcerated presenter, our work is toned down. Change comes post incarceration as the Graduate presenter’s story can now be told without censure. Some of those presentations are bold steps for the presenter, as she is giving that part of herself for viewing by others who don’t truly understand the incarcerated sector. Presentations are painful as memories of pain, hurt, life and love lost, or family divided is remembered because we had a hand in causing it. Yet each presenter has taken all of that negative energy and moved it to the positive, stepping up and out to say life goes on! I am still here. We forge forward in our daily activities to live past the incarcerated time to be the best we can be, doing the best we can do with the resources we have, just surviving on our own terms. For the audience is not only the ones who come to see the performances but those people we are in daily communication and contact with, co-workers, families, and friends.
How do the women in the ensemble support each other?
KR: It’s amazing. There is nothing comparable to the experience of incarceration. It is a traumatic experience that the women need one another to check in about. It is a bonding experience too. And “Reentry” is also something that can only be experienced to be understood. Really, just having the space and time to talk and connect is one of the most therapeutic things for the women.
What have you learned from working with the Graduates?
KR: It’s pretty fathomless. We are a family now. Because they have shared so many of their stories, lives and experiences with me, and because I have helped to facilitate them sharing and performing their stories, we are very closely connected. Their spiritual life becomes quite strong in prison. The time; the tests of dealing with their own actions from their past; the tests of dealing with administration and the tensions that build up between fellow inmates; as well as the powerful love and camaraderie that women develop for one another on the inside, all of these things are powerful lessons and stories to learn from.
The Graduates will perform at 7pm on Saturday, November 8, 2014 at Ashé Cultural Arts Center, 1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd, New Orleans, LA 70113. For tickets call (504) 569-9070. This performance is being presented by Ashé Cultural Arts Center in collaboration with the Guantanamo Public Memory Project, a joint partnership with Tulane University.