Student Play Based on Female Prisoners’ Lives

The play, Unexpected: Voices of Incarcerated Women, was written by former inmates at the York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Conn.

The play, Unexpected: Voices of Incarcerated Women, included pieces written by former and current inmates at the York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Conn. Photo by Bill Burkhart.

The debut of Unexpected: Voices of Incarcerated Women, a new play directed by Professor of Theater Ron Jenkins, was shown to full crowds in the Center for the Arts Hall on Feb. 25 and 26.

In Unexpected, stories written by women formerly and presently incarcerated at the York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Conn., were performed by the former prisoners and Wesleyan students who have collaborated with them in Jenkins’ service learning course.

Jenkins has been leading a theater outreach class at York since 2008, which predates the Center for Prison Education at Wesleyan, founded in 2009. However, through the Center for Prison Education, Wesleyan students are currently volunteering at the prison.

“The mission of the Center for Prison Education program is to practice Wesleyan’s civic engagement by offering college courses to incarcerated individuals, in order both to enrich the lives of those who are systematically denied access to educational opportunities and to enhance Wesleyan’s academic community. We believe that the work done by Ron Jenkins and our activities complement one another well,” explains program manager Cathy Crimmins Lechowicz, director of community service and volunteerism.

The Feb. 25 performance included a reading by novelist Wally Lamb from I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies of the Women of York Prison.

“This play gives a stage to women whose voices have not been heard in the public debates about prison that have an impact on all our lives,” says Jenkins.

Students sang songs that conveyed longing, innocence and regret and also convincingly took on the roles of inmates in various monologues. The stories were a mixture of texts from Wally lamb’s book and texts written for Jenkins’ class. The women in the Wesleyan class were the same women who had been in Wally lamb’s class and contributed to his books. Wesleyan students worked very closely with the inmates to adapt their stories for the stage.

According to Jenkins, the titles of the Wally Lamb’s books detailing the prisoner’s stories were taken from gospel songs that were used in the play: “I’ll Fly Away” and “Couldn’t Keep It to Myself.” Other songs were selected by Jenkins with recommendations by the women of York and the student actors.

The ensemble performed in front of a backdrop created by Lynda Gardner, a former inmate–now artist,–who told of how her time spent overindulging in the charms of casinos led her to York.

“With one percent of the U.S. population in jail it is important to listen in a way that humanizes rather than demonizes people behind bars. We might discover that they are not as different from ourselves as we expect them to be,” Jenkins said before the performances.

One Wesleyan student who attended the performances said that she was moved by the respect that the former York inmates seemed to have for the student performers.

“It was clear that they were very proud of the ability and talent of the students to represent really emotional, violent, and challenging pieces written by inmates,” said Caitlin MacLeod-Bluver ’11.

“I was also really impressed by the relationships that the students had formed with the current inmates and the willingness of the inmates to open up and share really deep issues with the students. To me, this demonstrated the value of this program. I thought that the performance was beautifully executed, ” she said.

In the post performance discussion Gardner said “having our voices heard outside is freedom.”

Jenkins said the pieces from the prisoners were chosen “to give greater exposure to voices that are rarely heard outside prison walls, he said.

Since the women at York told Jenkins and his student that they feel “erased” by society Jenkins said he believes that theater has the power to help counteract that social invisibility. Another benefit of the performance is that the recently released women could be part of a community of performers–“breaking down the barriers and stigma that separates prisoners from society at large.”

The ticket income from the shows will be donated to the Barbara Fund, which supports education programs for incarcerated women.