February 28, 2013
Rhodessa Jones’ presentation of A Woman for the 21st Century – The Medea Project this past Monday began with music. Idris Ackamore slithered down the aisle of the Kennedy Auditorium playing an offbeat dirge with his saxophone. The notes started abstract and splattered, but he skillfully crafted a catchy lick that was easy to hum. Then he actually did start humming, and he invited the crowd to repeat after him. Being liberal arts students, Idris appealed to our sense of community—“come on! This is a community thing here, now sing!”—and so we did. The whole crowd hummed the funky line from nowhere, and he echoed with his saxophone. When this came to its natural conclusion, he pulled out his didgeridoo. I don’t think the Kennedy Auditorium has ever known such strange and beautiful sounds.
The music set an appropriate precedent for Jones herself, whose magnetic stage presence centered the crowd as effectively as the music. What started as lecture transformed into spoken word poetry. Jones performed the lesson she wanted to get across to the audience. Calling it a lecture would diminish the importance of the creative methods she utilized. You could call it poetry, dance or theatre, because all of those artistic forms were present, but what seemed more important was that the creative process itself, regardless of form, was an expression directly connected to the body’s experience. And whether the body articulates its experience in dance or language does not matter—what matters is that you have a way to say it.
Rhodessa wanted us to say it too. Just as Idris interacted with the crowd, so did she. It is not always easy for a performer to bring in audience participation. Every crowd has a tendency to be reluctant, especially here, but that was no barrier on Monday night. Rhodessa inspired you to be expressive, and you were happy to play along.
Rhodessa’s and Idris’s insistence that the crowd participate reflected the creative work she does in jails, where she merges creativity with social justice in a cooperative environment. Rhodessa brings the liberating power of artistic expression to incarcerated women through the Medea Project. Jones told us many powerful stories about the troubled women she had met in jail. By encouraging incarcerated women to find a voice of their own through creative expression on stage, through theatre and dance and music, she was able help many find meaning in a world that had been mean and unfair to them.
Jones has a simple love for the people she works with in prison. “You have to care,” she said, “and really care. Because people can tell when you’re being fake.” Her desire to see female inmates open up to her and to the world requires a lot of personal and emotional investment. She has to care about listening and also about expressing herself in the same way that she encourages others to do. In Monday’s performance, Jones was very forthcoming about her personal life. She put trouble and hurt and pain out there for all to see so that we could understand where she was coming from and where all mistreated women are coming from. She transformed the stage from a place where people act to a place where people live, people cry and people change.
Jones’ presence on this campus is important because it shows us what art can do beyond the vacuum of art exhibits, book reviews, museums and literary journals. If the prison system is part of the new Jim Crow in the United States, then the world needs creative ways of fighting it. Professor of English Doran Larson’s prison writing class also shows the ways in which creative expression can be life changing for incarcerated people. Rhodessa holds that performance can be an exorcism of guilt, the act of which allows people who have no where to go but back to the jail cell a chance to forgive themselves.
In her time here, Jones will be performing her newest piece entitled The Resurrection of SHE. The performance will be a blend of documentation and theatre that is expressive of her experience with incarcerated women and also her work with HIV positive women in San Francisco. We at Hamilton College are honored to have Rhodessa here to challenge why we think art is useful. May her presence open doors and inspire the College’s creative thinkers and human rights activists to ask themselves “where can I make a difference?”