February 28, 2013
Hamilton College has once again found a unique way to combine academia and activism. Through a partnership with a variety of departments, including the Days-Massolo Center, the Comparative Literature Department and the Performing Arts Department, the College hosted a residency by Cultural Odyssey’s Rhodessa Jones and her partner Idris Ackamoor.
Founded in 1979 by Ackamoor, Cultural Odyssey is one of California’s oldest African American performing arts agencies. Jones, who joined Cultural Odyssey in 1983, has developed a unique method of combining art and activism, in addition to her work with this performance group, by working in prisons with incarcerated women. Through working with these women the performer come to realize that female inmates often respond to their sentences with feelings of guilt, depression and self-loathing. To confront such emotions and raise awareness about the hardships of incarcerated women and other groups, Jones created The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women/HIV Circle. Through this project, she demonstrates that art has the potential not only to promote health and social justice but also to help the inmates reduce their powerful negative emotions and prevent recidivism.
Hamilton College’s ability to welcome such an influential performer is easily attributed to the fandom of the Comparative Literature Department’s Nancy Rabinowitz. Fascinated by Jones’s blending of antiquity with modern social issues in works such as Medea, Rabinowitz wrote a letter to express her amazement and love of the project. The result was a unique “internship” with the performer in California, during which time Rabinowitz helped Jones organize material for a book. Yet working alongside her creative idol was more than just an intriguing work opportunity; through assisting Jones in performances with inmates, Rabinowitz was able to “bring aspects of [her] life together” in the form of a “support group.” This emotional experience filled the professor with the desire to share Jones’s energy with the rest of the Hamilton community.
On Monday, Feb. 25, Jones performed pieces from The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women/HIV Circle in the Kennedy Auditorium of the Taylor Science Center. In this workshop, Jones addressed the use of theater as a “healing tool.” Watching excerpts from the performance and short footage from Italian, African and American prisons moved and inspired students and faculty alike. Kevin Welsh ’15 said, “It was very cool to see the relevance [of the Medea story] after 3000 years.”
The Hamilton community had an opportunity to have an intimate discussion with Jones on Tuesday, Feb. 26, during which time the performer expressed her dedication to and passion for her work with incarcerated women. “I think I was sent,” she explained of her reasons for helping these individuals. Originally, Jones said, she was teaching aerobics to the women in prisons. Upon seeing that their pain and anger made them uninterested in any exercise, Jones decided that the women needed an outlet to express their emotions and come to terms with their true selves. Encouraging women to speak honestly about their history “puts lives on the table,” she explained. “Women caught on the other side of the law face oppression in a violent way… [They] need a voice.” With the women, Jones organized lengthy periods for the inmates to simply scream. This allowed them to “knock down walls” and face their emotions head on. Not only did Jones help the women learn to connect to their own selves—she showed them how to understand other women. It was an opportunity to develop a notion of female empowerment among women who had so violently been oppressed by men and society.
On Wednesday, Feb. 27, Jones performed her latest work based in classical myth, “The Resurrection of SHE: From Frisco to Soweto.” The show, which featured Ackamoor, was an evening of spoken word and interdisciplinary performance held in the Events Barn for the entire campus to attend.
Rhodessa Jones’ and Idris Ackamoor’s presence on the Hill brings awareness to the struggles of others in our local community. Though Jones insists that “we are not far from them,” our privileges in life have unintentionally created a social divide between the inmates the performer works with and students at Hamilton. After hearing the inspirational stories of the guest performer, one must wonder whether students at Hamilton are more than the “Patagonia-wearing fresh faces” Professor Rabinowitz claims inmates perceive us as.