I actually came to SF for the weekend to see The Medea Project’s California Stories: A Time…A Place. (In addition to getting my regular Yay Area / Gurantz Family fix). As to be expected, the bad-ass Rhodessa Jones directed her articulate ensemble ably. Ms. Jones knows from the “It” required for theater-making: as with other similarly indefinable qualities, like comic timing, “It” cannot be bought or taught, though it does get better with practice.
And she’s been at this awhile. The Medea Project has been creating theater with incarcerated women for the past 15 years. California Stories, a sort of retrospective, covers a lot of old/new material, with a crazy-diverse cast of women. Ms. Jones, in the program notes, made some pretty hard-core claims for the questions the play would supposedly ask, like: given the inequities of this system, do we reform ourselves, or is insurrection our only option? And what would that look like?
The overall experience of the piece, however, was still church, a two-hour catharsis session for the women in the audience. This is not invalid–I believe everyone needs a place to worship/find “God”, and neither organized religion nor capitalism cuts it for a lot of us.
But lately I’ve swung all the way Brecht on the performance pendulum: he believed that catharsis theater, no matter the content, is an ultimately reactionary form: it allows the audience to remain complacent spectators in a mimetic emotional experience. Truly effective political theater, what Brecht called EPIC theater, makes the normal strange by placing the everyday experience in its sociopolitical context. We become distanced from our lives to look at our lives in the world. This forces us to regard our most commonplace assumptions anew, encouraging action and change.
California Stories didn’t do that. An example: at one point, we watched video of an earlier production, in which an inmate described a horrific rape. The ensemble then emerged onstage to do “The Kicking Dance,” for which they lined up in high heels, and at the command “fire!” rushed downstage and kicked the air as if they were beating up the rapist. Ms. Jones sat in the audience with a microphone, shouting things like, “kick his ass!” and “this is for Darcelle!” and “you might kill me, but you’re going to remember me.”
What made me cry, because I did cry, was not the empowering, therapeutic catharsis of watching women “take vengeance” on Darcelle’s rapist. Watching it made poignant the fact that women can only “fight back” like that onstage against an imaginary foe. It made me angry and terribly sad. I felt my own helplessness against the countless daily violence done to women–the powerlessness of every woman in that room against those violences. This was not Ms. Jones’ intention, I don’t think.
**Special shout out to Lisa Biggs, who performed beautiful original solo work.