'Medea Project' Brings Hope to Incarcerated Women

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Artist & Activist Rhodessa Jones talks about The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women. The Project has earned attention and praise for helping to lift imprisoned women's lives and voices. The actress, teacher and a playwright discusses her portrayals of women as they persevere through major life changes have won acclaim.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead: an update on a story we told you about this spring - racial disparities in the sentencings of two teenage girls in Texas. It turns out that race is just a part of the story. And later, Chaka Khan. She's back.

But first: Rhodessa Jones is an actress, a teacher, a playwright, an activist. Her portrayals of women going through the stages of life have won critical acclaim. But her work as the founder and director of what's known as the Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women has also won the attention and praise of people across the political spectrum. It is work that helps women find their voices through art.

Rhodessa Jones is currently finishing up an artist-in-residence position at the University of Maryland. And she joins me today in our Washington studios. Ms. Jones, welcome. It's a pleasure to have you here.

Ms. RHODESSA JONES (Actress; Founder and Director, Medea Project; Artist-in-Residence, University of Maryland): Thank you.

MARTIN: Let's talk a little bit about how you got to where you are. And if we were to write this down on a piece of paper, somebody might think this is a crazy story. This is a story out of a play.

Ms. JONES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: One of 12 surviving children.

Ms. JONES: I'm the eighth child.

MARTIN: Daughter of migrant workers, young unwed mother, teenage mother with…

Ms. JONES: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …you know, all that that implies. I think you were a nude dancer at one point.

Ms. JONES: Yes, I was. (unintelligible)…

MARTIN: What - was it - life, you said life for you weren't no crystal stair?

Ms. JONES: Hey, but it sure has been a carnival. It has been a party. It has been a magical, phantasmagoric journey.

MARTIN: Well, how did an artist arise out of those beginnings?

Ms. JONES: It totally is an American story. I come from this large group of people. We were migrants, gypsy-like, traveling around the country. We didn't have television until the '60s. So we had to entertain each other. It was about telling stories, who could tell the tallest tales. My father would say who is the biggest liar, you know? And that we would sit around our dinner table, and you were expected to be able to contribute to the day's events. What happened to you today? What didn't happen? Why did you have trouble at school? And then in the summertime, we would make shows for our parents. It was, like, we would work all day to create acts.

MARTIN: In fact, your brother is the very well known choreographer/dancer Bill T. Jones.

Ms. JONES: Yes, yes. And my baby brothers, yeah.

MARTIN: And I'm just wondering, they didn't have just come up with one but two, you know, nationally and internationally known performers in one family.

Ms. JONES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But it's also remarkable, as a young woman, having a child at 16.

Ms. JONES: Mm.

MARTIN: Very difficult. You know, today - I mean, you know, obviously back in the day - I'm not trying to make you old - but, you know, back in the day, a lot of people would get married at that age.

Ms. JONES: I'm old. It's true.

MARTIN: Well…

Ms. JONES: I'm fabulous, but I'm old.

Ms. JONES: You are fabulous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But I'm just saying, for a lot of people, having a child at 16, the story would have pretty much stopped right there, from one low-wage job to another one sort of marginal existence to another. I still would like to know how it is that you then become a playwright. How were you able to pursue that?

Ms. JONES: Well, I think my mother and father reminded us constantly that we wanted to live a better life than the one they had. And they were just happy if we finished high school. My mother told me when I had my daughter, Shanjili(ph), she said, now, you really going to have to go to school. You got to need an education to take care of this baby. And my father said, and if you can't take care of this baby, please, leave this baby here with us.

That really gave me room to grow and to be, you know. If I had to be a mother before I was a woman, I have these two very strong, capable people saying, you know, leave her here with us. But I didn't. I stayed home for a very long time. And I worked in the yard. I worked in the garden. I stayed home and I dreamed. I listened to Bob Dylan and - I mean, this is - the country was changing. And I was here with these two little girls, dreaming, writing. Sophia Loren had just, like, made this wonderful movie. I can't remember the title of the movie, but I saw this movie. And so the world was gradually opening up, even as I was sitting in this farmhouse on this country road.

And my brother Azel(ph) was really into theatre. He introduced me to a group in Rochester, New York, the Living Theatre. It was through these people that I started to interact with human beings. And this was like an entrance for me. And the more I got involved with this theatre and with these people, I was also being introduced to the world in a whole different way. You know, it was like women were doing what they chose to do and men were choosing to make the yogurt and make the bread. And also, I was asked to step up into a role in a play one night and did very well. And when these people stood up and applauded for me at the end of the evening, I knew where I belonged.

MARTIN: The thing that interests me about your work is that the range of roles that you play, all these different identities. How do you conceive of these pieces? How - when do these pieces start?

Ms. JONES: Well, I feel like I am from that area of the culture of women where some many women are silent. I mean, I think it's the other side of having a baby at such an early age. You're expected to sit with the old ladies now because all of the sudden, you've, you know, you have like forfeited your youth and your life, and already you're ruined. I remember feeling that when I was much younger. I was expected to sort of like hang back and, you know, and haven't you already made enough trouble, that kind of feeling.

So I would, you know, here I am on the periphery of this, looking at women and loving them. I mean, I had a brother who had three wives at one time. In this migrant camp, my oldest brother was living with three women as his wife and had children with all of them and controlled them to the point that he would give me a quarter to tell if Lily was smoking while he was gone because he didn't want her smoking.

So I'm living with this. They're doing hair. They're talking about how it used to be. They're talking about how men ain't this and men ain't that. And then, of course, there's television. The world is changing. The '60s are coming in. All of this fed my imagination, as well as how do you get notice in the theatre world? And I dared to take my story center stage.

MARTIN: Let's talk about your work with incarcerated women. Improbably as it sounds, as I understand it, you were asked to teach aerobics…

Ms. JONES: Yes.

MARTIN: …in the San Francisco jail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JONES: Well, may God bless our funders. They were trying to figure out how to best utilize my talents and their position of having some money to maybe do something with social relevance. So I was asked to go in and work with incarcerated women. Now, I'm not an aerobics teacher, but when they told me where I was going to be working, I was stoked. I was, like, I want to do this.

MARTIN: So you went there to teach aerobics, and then what happened?

Ms. JONES: I stepped in there and I saw these women looking at me like I was from outer space. And there were a thousand, you know, eyes. There were women looking at me like where - women looking at me, like, where have you been so long? And I was incredibly moved. I thought aerobics was not going to be the thing in this place.

But I played the game. You know, I came in with my long extensions and my unitard. And they're like, who is this? You know, of course, the B-word came up a lot. Like, you know. There's always - they're like, who am I (unintelligible) here? But they followed me. I talked about my own narrow escapes with violent men, with drugs, looking for love in all the wrong places.

And this one young woman walked with me and she said, why are you telling us your business? And I thought, hmm, you know, because African-Americans are -you just want to be telling people your business. And I said, well, you know, I'm about building bridges. I want to create a bridge out of here, a bridge made from language, from movement that's going to take us all back to our families. Now, that's spirit. I have no idea where that came from. And she said, well, you're not the police? I said, no. I'm an artist. She said, what's that?

And thus, began my process of trying to answer that question. What is an artist in an institution like that? I'm not a psychotherapist.

MARTIN: Why do you call your project the Medea Project? Because Medea was a beast.

Ms. JONES: Well…

MARTIN: I mean, in classical Greek mythology, Medea killed her children. Why did you name your project as this person?

Ms. JONES: Because I met a woman by the name of Deborah. Deborah actually was a chemist, had a degree from UC Berkeley, and so in love with this man and they got into experimenting with cocaine and she got very, very addicted to cocaine. And he wanted her gone and he wanted the baby. And she said, oh, watch me. And she smothered this child.

Now, I'm not saying it's right. But I understand. Again, like Medea, you know, a sorceress of sorts. She had made his life better. She made most of the money. He was a blue-collar worker. But she lost her mind behind committing that act. And I thought I want to do this play in this place. I want to talk to these women about the ego murders of children. When you do whatever it is as you do, what happens to our children?

MARTIN: What gives you the hope, the belief, the expectation that this work is truly transformative? Are there success stories of women who've been part of the project that you can tell us about?

Ms. JONES: Well, there is Felicia Scaggs, who has not been back to jail in probably 12 years. I met Felicia when I started this project. She's intensely involved with her mom, really like versus being the baby girl, the needs all -the helper. Her mother has taken ill. She's changing her whole life. She's getting another place to live so that she can be with her mother.

And then there's Angela Wilson, who was a prominent, and we're just telling stories. And Angela is a student at ACT, the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She is like - she works for the sheriff's department. And when I met her, she was a speed freak, you know.

And these two women alone, I took them to Rutgers a few years back, and we were all a part of a seminar called Performing Communities. They make up the core of the company along with women from the community. And then there's a lot of them that's not with me anymore but they're not in jail, and they would give me that respect when we meet. And they have hard time, because they want to pretend it didn't happen. But when they see me, they speak to me. They introduce their children to me, their men to me. And so, yeah, there are stories out there. And my own life, you know, I mean, if it had not been for theater and a large part for the "Medea Project," I would be no more than a bad memory or a sister with a very bad attitude.

MARTIN: Well, do continue to be fabulous.

Ms. JONES: Thank you. You, likewise, be fabulous.

MARTIN: Will you come back and see us…

Ms. JONES: I promise I will.

MARTIN: …when you come back on the way?

Ms. JONES: I thank you so much for having me. I am just so honored to be on your show, Michel.

MARTIN: Rhodessa Jones is an actress, teacher, singer, writer. Ms. Jones is also the founder and director of the award-winning "Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women." She was kind enough to join us here in our studios.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. JONES: Thank you for having me.

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