Near the end of their performance at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, a cast of 18 inmates-turned-actors stripped off prison-issued grey garb to reveal custom-printed orange T-shirts. Then they sang. The change to a bright color not only created visual impact – it was symbolic of their personal transformation.
“This is how we heal,” said more than one participant of Freehold’s Engaged Theatre Residency program after the conclusion of their show April 7.
Freehold has been offering the residency at WCCW for 11 years. The program has repeatedly proven that even amidst surveillance monitors and razor wire, it’s possible to escape through art.
Participants meet weekly over five months and explore acting, spoken word, improvisation, movement and playwriting. This year’s program was led by teaching artists RobinLynn Smith, Rebecca Tourino, Caroline Brown, Taryn Collis, Joy Easley, Sarah Porkalob, and Jessica Robinson.
Titled “True Frame of Mind: Bee-Coming Whole … Sweet,” the show included a cacophony of narrated vignettes about drug addiction, racism, family strife and coming out as transgendered, among other issues. Despite the heavy topics, there was a sense of hope and personal discovery in the stories, which were culled from the offenders’ journals.
Humor, too, was woven into the play. Two women dressed as bumble bees opened the show by rapping. Another portrayed Chaz Bono. And the whole cast busted a dance routine from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.
The women performed twice, once for an audience of other inmates and a second evening for family members and guests involved with Freehold. Witnessing a performance inside a prison can be eye-opening for outsiders, who may have preconceived ideas about inmates and life behind bars.
After the show, participants answered audience members’ questions and shared testimonials of how theatre has helped them move beyond problems they experienced before and during their time in prison. One woman who struggles with suicidal thoughts said looking forward to her Freehold experiences gave her the will to continue living.
It’s often said that theatre is a reflection of life. But Freehold and the women of WCCW are demonstrating that theatre can be life-changing.