The following essay was originally published by The Huffington Post on March 14, 2017. An excerpt is reposted here with permission.
Co-authored with Dr. Yasmine Van Wilt, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Mellon Fellow at Union College, NY, Kobalt/AWAL singer-songwriter, dramatist, academic, and contributor to Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global.
This is the fourth of a series of interviews with extraordinary people who are working in partnership with or using their skills and training as artists and humanists to improve their communities, challenge assumptions, and advance our understanding of the human condition.
Performer, teacher, director Rhodessa Jones is Co-Artistic Director of San Francisco’s performance company Cultural Odyssey. Jones directs The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, an award-winning performance workshop committed to incarcerated women’s personal and social transformation, now in it’s 23rd year. As recipient of US Artist Fellowship, Jones expanded her work in jails and educational institutions internationally. She conducts Medea Projects in South African prisons, working with incarcerated women and training local artists and correctional personnel to embed the Medea process inside these institutions. In 2012, she was named Arts Envoy by the US Embassy in South Africa. Recent US residencies include Brown University and Scripps College Humanities Institute. Recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from CA College of the Arts, San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Lifetime Achievement Award, SF Foundation’s Community Leadership Award, Non-Profit Arts Excellence Award by the SF Business Arts Council, and an Otto Rene Castillo Award for Political Theater.
YVW: How did you come to find your aesthetic?
I was a hippie, you know. That’s my grounding. I read the IChing. And I have always traveled. You have to travel. It is part of my recipe for Creative Survival. When I got this job with the California Arts Council, and they asked me to go into the jails and teach aerobics to women….it was transformative. It all started there, with aerobics! It was important to me to be with the women in the prisons, to be a midwife with them as they transitioned through their grief and trauma and suffering. One of my brothers was incarcerated, but the idea of teaching aerobics to these sullen, depressed women when they looked at me like this woman was from the moon….
And for me, as an artist and human being, how can I apply creative survival, how can I speak, how can I help them with the process of saving their own lives? It all started with helping them to feel alive….it began there. And I was willing to share my own story, being an African-American woman, and the population was largely African-American and Latina. I talked about my daughter, my dance with dangerous men, my narrow escapes with drugs, and they were fascinated that I would share so much. And they loved that I didn’t judge them, that I was willing to share of myself….and then the stories started pouring out, people wanted to share their stories. And that was the seed that was planted. That was the beginning of the story.
The sheriff at that time was an angel. He supported my work. And I can tell you that the women I met were the original feral women, they are wild…they were the original women who run with wolves….and their self-destruction was rooted in feeling like they have failed the system, and all of this became fodder to discuss and build.
Sean Reynolds was getting her MSW; she was there to help me see the places that needed the scab pulled back, that needed light. She was already doing a life class with these women when they came into jail. Many of the women I met were just looking for love in all the wrong places; we all have done it. We are all headed for hell in a certain way, and we are lucky if someone comes along that helps us find purpose. I met some beautiful women in the prisons; you could see that beyond all their pain.
The first man I loved told me he’d be with me forever. Of course, when I got pregnant, he ran a-mile-a minute. So I had planned to leave for a home for unwed mothers. And my father said “No, you’re not giving the baby away. If you need to go, go, but you leave my blood here. We will take care of her, don’t think about abandoning this child.” So then I had my daughter at 16, and it was huge. To this day, my daughter is 51, and we’re still turning corners and clearing shadows together. We are so close and intertwined. I’m not a proponent of teenage parenthood, but I am grateful for my daughter. I ran into a lot of problems with culture, and my daughter has suffered a lot in ways I couldn’t predict. And so I ask her to forgive me, and she says that she loves me. And I love her with every fiber of my being. My story was my granddaughter’s sixteenth birthday present. My granddaughter, she’s my heart. She’s got a degree in psychology, and she is finding her own way. She is her own woman.
YVW: What made you decide to share your story?
Well, I had to ask myself, “How do I take care of the global community? I always tell people that I was sent to do this work, to be with the women that fall off the wagon, who disappear. It is almost crazy…worrying about daughters who are not my daughters…and the sisters, but I can’t quit…this is what I have to do. Somewhere in the heavens, some energy or the gods or goddesses, they are saying “You will do this.”
I was 9 years old. My older brother asked me to watch his wife-to-be; he wanted me to tell him when she was smoking. And do you know what he did when I told him that I did see her smoking? He pushed a fistfull of cigarettes into her mouth. That was it. I refused. I was not going to be made complicit in the ill-treatment of another woman. That was the loud-and-clear call. We talked about this last night with my prison group; their whole journey has been about competing with other women. Who has the best body? Who is the best sex partner? Sean and I designed a masturbation workshop for the women. We told them to go away and touch themselves. And the prostitutes had a hard time. The top whores who never had an orgasm. A couple of these women fired their pimps after the workshop. And we were empowering these women to find something extraordinary in themselves. Just the word vagina is so powerful. I’m trying to create a series right now on the history of the vagina.