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Imagining Medea: Rhodessa Jones and Theater for Incarcerated

Fraden, Rena. Imagining Medea: Rhodessa Jones & Theater for Incarcerated Women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2001. Print.

Chapter 1

“I am suspicious anyway of the ‘over time theory gets more complex and thus better’ argument, especially so when such an argument is implicitly applied to art. Art and theories of art obliviously changed over time, but I’m not at all sure they improve. It is clear that certain easily distinguished styles of performances become available for women (and others), and thus harder to ignore…” (35)


“no single womanly body…” (36)


“Because in all of her work, Jones insists on creating a performance space that calls out to audiences to respond to questions: How are we responsible for creating the very experiences and identities that she performs? What filters our own desires and definitions of good and evil? What institutions shape us and swing us, constrain us and free us?” (37)


“Context dependent creativity” – Liz Bondi


“What is an artist in that context?” (39) in reference to being an artist in a prison…


This question has me stuck… especially when considering it within the argument that reading is artistry.  


“you’ve got to be the shaman, the magician” (40)- Said by Jones


I think she does my kind of magical thinking… I think she does play with magic, regardless of whether or not she considers it magic. It isn’t the kind of magic she thinks it is though.


“So much more beautiful is jail culture” (40)


I know exactly what she means when she makes this statement and yet it’s also difficult for me to think like that, difficult for me not to name the complexity in making that statement… I have to consider the problematic ways in which the prison institution itself helped to produce the “beautiful” culture that she is calling attention to…


“All art is social work. And I think all social work is art.”  (43)


“Troupe mentality” “US” (45)


We need to be making something, producing something, as an “US”


“Jones knew that Medea’s story was relevant even when, or perhaps especially when, the incarcerated women initially resisted seeing any connection. She knew that the ambiguous qualities of the heroine and the choices before her were subjects that these women were uniquely qualified to address…. Medea is full of rage, and so are the women in jail…” (48)


Need to pay closer attention to when the women criticize certain characters especially women… they protect the men… I always find this a huge contrast to Bryn Mawr classrooms where we are talking about the patriarchy and deconstructing notions of gender


“Sarah Johnston points out that usually heroes fight against monsters, but it is unusual to find a hero and a monster ‘encapsulated within a single mythic figure.’ Says Johnston, ‘Not only does Medea’s checkered career allow authors and artists to explore the opposing concepts of self and other, as she veers between desirable and undesirable behavior,  between Greek and foreigner; it also allows them to raise the disturbing possibility of otherness lurking within the self- the possibility that the ‘normal’ carry within themselves the potential for abnormal behavior, that the boundaries expected to keep our world safe are not impermeable’” (51)


I am being reminded of the ending of Vaster than Empires… where he becomes the other….



“…but she escapes our better judgment too. As she takes off in her chariot at the end of the play, she flies beyond our human understanding, beyond the pale of civilized behavior… her performance disrupts the boundaries of right and wrong, of borders, of laws…” (53) …on medea’s effect on readers


Then the author goes on to also describe Medea as being about female agency…. Why is female agency always depicted as these situations when the main character does something particularly horrifying?


“counter memory” (64)


“Theatre may have saved Rhodessa Jone’s life, but it might not be enough for these women. Some of the incarcerated women who performed in this first play were empowered by no yet freed. The questions still lay before them: what it meant to be Medea, to become Medea, to kill Medea. Who else might they become as they represented their lives as drama?” (66).


*One thing I’m thinking about is whether or not it’s ever enough… I remember how immobilizing it was to leave the 360, to lose what I was most passionate about… what is it like to find passion in this workshop and then to be utterly without it…

Are there ways to follow up for programs that will eventually end?

*I’m stuck on the “to kill Medea”… is performing Medea the same as killing her…? Breathing life into her on stage, only then to perform her death?


 Chapter 2


“In all their incredible, magical terror” (67)


I’m keeping track of all the times Rhodessa uses the word magical… because it isn’t magic itself she is dismissing… it’s the fantasy of magic; the romanticized, harry potter kind of magic. Jones is interested in real magic, the kind all of us possess.


“Embedded in the command to ‘be real’ is the director’s artfulness in commanding the women to be more real, to say what they know to be true more forcefully, to touch their tits and see what happens, to feel womanhood come to a point. She never forgets how to appeal to what may be empowering in our common sense and apprehension of how women are shaped by their bodies, but she always knows how to critique the assumptions we have about the way things ‘just are’” (68)


*really interested by the bodily connections and the importance that body plays when working with women and groups whose physical movement is highly restricted.


“As Jones sees it, the defiantly imaginative and unreal space of the theatre, a space that collapses time and genre, historical and mythical realms, allows the participants in the Medea project to experience an alternative reality, one that can be changed, lived through differently…” (70) --- Magical Thinking?

“I think stilts are magical. They’re about heaven and earth, paradise lost, paradise regained. The spirits walk amongst us. The goddess walks with us. And spirits stalk the stage.” (74)


Again! She references magic. I feel the need to quote it. I definitely feel that she recognizes that magic which is real, and that exists through us, not “super” naturally. I also love the poetry of this line, and the implication that goddesses and spirits exist side by side with us, but that they become visible on the stage. Another reoccurring theme that I am finding in her work is the encouragement of movement in the bodies of incarcerated women. Not just any movement either, but large, spectacular movements. I want that for our group of women. I want it because I can’t help but think it has the potential to be liberating. If my every movement and access to space was so limited; I’d probably punch someone too (thinking about the first visit to Riverside and the women in line…). I can’t help but think it is the very fear of violent behavior underlying the rules that restrict and police bodies in Prisons plays a part in elevating tension between people to the point violence. It frustrates me that I’ve often heard rhetoric that 1) characterizes prisoners as being innately violent, and 2) posits that the solution is “self-control” and/or more therapy programs/ other various insistences on behavioral reform. These kinds of assumptions leave no room for the consideration of the environment itself that produces certain tensions/behaviors/actions; therefore leaving no room to reconsider reforming the institution itself.


“This was a woman doing it, a white woman doing it. And my experience had been that stilt walkers were mostly Chinese acrobats, or French clowns, or African dancers. And they’re usually men on stage. I was criticized by various artists of the African American community that I had it all wrong, that you can’t have stilt walking with a white woman. When people want to swipe at me, they say, “Why you dealing with African mythology and have a white woman on stilts? Come from Cameroon.” But stilts also come from China. They also come from Europe. The point is, I’ll use anything that speaks to me… Many kinds of art have” (74)


“Creative survival” (76)- I like this because of the implication that creativity and art are necessary for survival, and that quality of life goes beyond just having food and a bed to sleep in at night.



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