The Judy Dworin Performance Project is moving into its 4th year of residency work at York Correctional Institution for women in Niantic, CT. There has been tremendous growth in the women we have worked with at York in self-confidence and self esteem; in their ability to work as a group; in their ability to express themselves and communicate with others; and in adding a creative dimension to their lives that is healing and growth producing. Through this work we have begun to outreach to some of the families of the incarcerated and we have seen what an important bridge the arts can provide between family members inside and outside the razor wire. Children have reconnected with their mothers, parents have seen their incarcerated children’s growth, and family members have expressed pride in their incarcerated relatives accomplishments.
Our 2008 residency focused on the women’s dreams and dream aspirations, and began with a special performance of JDPP’s most recent premiere, The Witching Hour, a performance piece that looks at 17th century Connecticut women who were accused and prosecuted as witches. The piece was extremely well-received by the women and gave the 34 women who became part of the Dreamings project a way to see how costumes, visual elements, text and music can be combined in a performance piece that speaks to history, gender and issues of social justice.
The six-month residency culminated in a performance piece that integrated text, poetry, dance and, for the first time, scenic elements. Dreamings became a piece that spoke to not only the incarcerated but to all people, about their dreams, dream aspirations and common humanity. The results demonstrated a sophistication that went far beyond previous years. The progress this year was a testament to the value of continuing year-to-year residencies. And the women’s participation in other arts residencies at the prison also builds a foundational knowledge that they can apply to other arts projects.
A crowning achievement is that we received permission to purchase t-shirts of different rainbow colors depicting each group, (the dancers, singers, and performers) with a common design created by one of the women printed on the front of each one. The women wore these as “costumes” for each performance and we were able to then mail the t-shirts to designated family members after the performance. The opportunity to wear these t-shirt was transformative for the women– as one inmate said, “Putting on the shirts we were like free for a while. It is something I will never forget,” And one more notable step was that a families performance was allowed to take place on the last performance day in the evening, in the gym. An audience of about 70 people attended the families performance. One inmate, a youthful offender, described, “My mom has never seen me do anything like this,” and she continued to say of the project, “It motivated me. I haven’t been in seg in one month or gotten a ticket. I couldn’t go a week before.”
The York performances were seen by over 200 inmates at York who received the performance with standing ovations, cheers and energized talkbacks. As one inmate exclaimed in the talkback after the performance, “This is what it really means to be free on the inside. You guys are awesome and right now I feel free on the inside.”
We will be taking the Dreamings project out to the public on April 2, 3, 4, 2009 at Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, CT. Joining the Judy Dworin Performance Ensemble and Women of the Cross in this further development of the piece will be formerly incarcerated women and daughters of incarcerated women at York.
Our fourth Moving Matters! residency for women at York CI entitled “What I Want to Say” will begin this coming spring. In this project we plan to continue to build on the artistic and deep personal growth of the York women and further a positive dialogue with the participating women and family members. We plan to create a piece using text, movement, song and visual images to portray stories, thoughts and reflections of the women to an especially important person in their lives. The question that we are presenting to them is, “If you had only one story to tell that person, what would you want to say?”
Concurrently, we will be working with 20 York mothers and their Hartford-based children in a project in collaboration with Families in Crisis and Central Connecticut State University on the same theme. If possible, we hope to have some collaborative sharing between the two groups. We will work with the York mothers and their children, on a way to express a message to their mother or child through dance, song, poetry or the other art forms. Through a series of exercises and explorations in movement, writing, song and drawing, we will help to shape these communications in the classes for a culminating day of sharing at the prison. On the final day, in the morning the children and the mothers will share their pieces with each other. We will then work the separate pieces into a collaborative performance piece that will be shared as a culminating performance for an invited audience of inmates, staff and outside guests.
JDPP inc. throughout its almost twenty years, has created residency programs that time and again demonstrate how the arts can be a powerful agent of change, growth and healing. Our work at York has been one of the most striking examples of the transformative possibilities of the arts.