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Performer articulates ‘Life on the Swerve’

Rhodessa Jones sings with audience participation in her performance of “Life on the Swerve: Observations from the Place Where the World Weeps,” Tuesday in the Garrison Theater at Scripps College. The explicit and graphic performance of the stories of her time spent in the prison systems teaching women performing arts was accompanied by videos of past shows preformed by the inmates. / photo by Scott Mirimanian

Allison Lavelle
Staff Writer

Rhodessa Jones entered Garrison Theater at Scripps College as a devil-type character.

Speaking in a menacing voice, she offered the audience condoms and sweets as she made her way to the stage to begin her performance of “Life on the Swerve: Observations from That Place Where the World Ends” at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Once onstage Jones began smoking a cigarette and drinking from a bottle of alcohol and then spitting it back out.

In the one-woman show, Jones dramatically re-enacted the tales of several incarcerated women.

Short films about Jones’s theatrical work with women in prison were woven into the performance.

While telling the stories, Jones showed her experience in theater by changing the sound of her voice and behaving as if she were the person whose tale was being shared.

“Theater saved my life,” Jones said. “It has always been the river that I floated on.”

One of the short films highlighted Jones’ work with female inmates in a jail in South Africa as part of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women.

The Medea Project is a workshop that explores how arts-based programs can help decrease the number of women that are returning to jail by helping the inmates express themselves theatrically through acting, singing and dancing their life stories.

“I liked the video with the women in jail.” senior English major at Pitzer College Jenna Bivona said. “I like the idea of using performance art in jails as a way of giving women a voice.”

The Medea Project is produced by Cultural Odyssey, a group of emerging and established artists that presents original productions as well as offers low cost or free technical assistance and goes on national and international tours, of which Jones is co-artistic director.

Part of Jones’s performance involved the reading of a poem written by an inmate to help her deal with the death of her 6-year-old daughter who was shot while she was in jail and the guilt that she felt as a result of not being there for her.

The poem centered around how no one told her about life and the dangers and consequences of drugs and sex.

“Sometimes all you need is a friend to tell you ‘look, you’re going down the wrong path’,” Jones said.

Claremont Graduate University student Keeonna Harris thought the poem brought attention to society’s judgment of incarcerated women who might not have been told about those dangers.

“I think that when people get in trouble, society tends to judge but not think about how those people might not have had the talks, that nobody might have told them,” Harris said.

Jones said she became involved with inmates when she was offered a job as an aerobics teacher at the San Francisco County Jail, but found that the women she was working with responded better to more creative outlets like theater.

As advice that could be helpeful to anyone who wants to do similar work, Jones suggests getting involved in the community, finding internships at similar companies and looking for volunteer programs at local jails.

Allison Lavelle can be reached at allison.lavelle@laverne.edu.

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