In an attempt to break the Wesleyan bubble, and maybe the “bubble” of mainstream society, the University’s Theater Department presents “Unexpected: Voices of Incarcerated Women” this weekend. Directed by theater Professor Ron Jenkins, the performance is based on Wally Lamb’s collections of incarcerated women’s essays (produced in Lamb’s writing workshops at the York Correctional Institute), which have been published in the books “I’ll Fly Away” and “Couldn’t Keep It To Myself.”

Argus: What was the inspiration behind this performance?
Ron Jenkins: The play was inspired by the experience my students and I have had collaborating on theatrical performances with incarcerated women at the York Correctional Institute in a course I teach called “Theater Outreach.” In spite of the fact that the women of York and many of the Wesleyan students had little theater experience, the performances they created expressed the transformative power of art. Many of the women at York said that for the time they were rehearsing or performing they could forget that they were in prison. They also felt empowered by having their voices heard and encouraged us to perform their writings outside of the prison and so we took up that challenge with this performance.

A: How do the experiences of the students in the class shape their performances?
RJ: All but one of the students acting in the play have been in the “Theater Outreach” course at York Correctional Institute, so they are performing the writings of women they have met and worked with. This past history intensifies the students’ commitment to do justice to the power and meaning of the words in their performance. It increases their understanding of how important it is for the women of York to have their voices heard outside the prison walls.

A: In addition to the students, several recently released inmates will be performing their own work. What do their performances specifically add to the work as a whole?
RJ: Three women who have worked with us at York over the past two years have been recently released and will perform their own writings. This helps us to create an extended community that bridges the divide that usually separates people ‘on the inside’ from people ‘on the outside.’

A: What is the message you hope to send with this performance?
RJ: The play is called “Unexpected” because we hope to shatter stereotypes that are commonly held about the one percent of the population that lives behind bars. We have learned in our work at the prison that we all make bad choices in our lives, and the difference between the people whose bad choices get them imprisoned and the people whose bad choices go unpunished is not as great as many of us imagine.

The performances are Thursday, Feb. 24 and Friday, Feb. 25 at 8:00 p.m. in the CFA Hall.

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