SAN FRANCISCO: Rhodessa Jones, who took home the Theatre Practitioner Award at last week’s TCG Conference in Cleveland, can add that trophy to a shelf full of honors and acclamations. But awards and acclaim aren’t why this 66-year-old storyteller/theatremaker entered the field in the first place, and it’s not what has sustained her work for the past 30 years at Cultural Odyssey, where her most well-known effort among many has been the Medea Project, a storytelling/theatre intervention among the local female prison population.
I spoke to Jones a few days before she flew to Cleveland to accept the award from playwright Will Power.
I’m calling you relatively early today—thanks for taking the time.
I’m up and about. The weather is foggy and gray; in another couple of hours, it will be hot, and then windy and blustery by four. My garden loves it. I love living on the West Coast—it has its moments, for sure.
Are you from there?
I’m actually a Floridian. My mother and father were migrant workers. In the ’40s, my father started getting contracts in upstate New York and New Jersey, and then settled on the East Coast. I was 9 or 10 when they decided they weren’t going to travel anymore.
Where did you catch the theatre bug?
Being an African-American, it was everywhere. Church was like that, though I didn’t go to church a lot. But my grandmother used to teach us lessons with parables and act out all the parts. I heard about Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit long before Walt Disney got a hold of them. There were 12 of us, eight boys and four girls, and my grandmother would have to perform for us to teach us in the yard of my grandmother’s house.
Then I moved to Rochester, New York, as a young woman and started working at the Living Arts Theatre. I started to read and watch older actors; I had a baby by that time. It was a relief to be in a community where children were okay. I was a script girl, a gofer—I did everything. But I watched people transform, and as I grew, theatre saved my life, just being among actors in the multicultural reality that is theatre. I watched the husband of this female director stay home and mind the garden while she watched us rehearse. Seeing a woman doing that was powerful.
The first play I was really involved with was Marat/Sade. That piece was thundering home: Herein lies the insanity that theatre artists are dying to get into. It was an interesting, mystical journey and it began there.
Then I fell in love with this crazy Irishman and we were hippies. He was one the proponents of the idea that these are the last days, so we moved to Costa Rica and lived on the beach. My hair was dreaded long before dreads were popular. We were young.
Theatre has always been there for me; theatre caught me. After my daughter got ill, we moved to California, and my family followed. My brother Azel Jones wrote Port Royal Sound, about the freeing of the slaves after the Civil War. He was just begining to embrace Buddhism. Another brother of mine, Bill T. Jones, choreographed it. This was the early ’70s. We called ourselves Jones company. My family and myself, we were not trained actors; we just wanted to do it, so we did it.
So then at some point you formed Cultural Odyssey?
Cultural Odyssey is the mother company, the umbrella for what I do. Idris Ackamoor is my business partner. At one time he was my life partner. We no longer rub bellies, but we do some good things together. I was dancing with my family’s company, and Idris had been checking me out, and he and I fell into this relationship.
The Medea Project grew out of an invitation from the California Arts Council to work with incarcerated women. I went into the San Francisco City Jail to lead an aerobics class, but they didn’t want to do aerobics; they wanted to hear my stories, and then after listening to me for a while, they wanted to know, Could they talk? I said, “As long as we can agree that everybody’s story is valid, everyone’s pain is valid, and what we say stays here.” Theatre became the altar to talk about where they’d been.
At some point, though, you and they decided their stories were worth sharing.
Yes, and that’s when I created Big Butt Girls, Hard Headed Women. I still have people come up to me and say, “Oh my God, Big Butt Girls changed my life!” I had one girl tell me that she did a monologue by my character Regina Brown for Lloyd Richard to get into Yale, and it blew him away.
Everywhere I turned, everything I touched opened a new door for people who didn’t think theatre was for them. In America, if you haven’t studied Shakespeare, if you haven’t gone to a large conversatory—people don’t feel like they have a place in it. But you look at jail—that’s the drama of life. After I did Big Butt Girls, I was invited back to the jails to honor their stories. I’m not a therapist, but I was encouraged to work with them.
I always use Greek mythology. The Medea Project is called that because it grew out of the story of a woman who had killed her baby when a man left her because she was addicted to crack.
I know what you do isn’t about the numbers, but has your work with this population reduced recidivism?
Yes and no. There are so many other variables that come into play. Women have children; their tolerance for drug addiction is much lower. And women need housing. When they get out of jail, they need all these other support systems. But yes, there are five ex-convicts who are out and now work with my company.
This work gives another window to our culture on something that’s usually closed off. Just like HIV 20 years ago was a shameful stigma, jail has that now, too. How do we open that up and look at it?
After all these years working with incarcerated women, are you hopeful about the future?
I feel hopeful that art has a very centered, cemented place in their world. There are social programs, but art does another thing; art can give wings to anybody. In the long run, if that can enter into the soul, there may be hope.
But you look at the system—the police are going mad, they are legalized thugs; if you look at where we are with immigration. Americans have big hearts, but the other side of that is that we’re very arrogant, like we’re this big club people still want to be in. So am I hopeful? Yes and no. Can we change our policies around incarceration? With the work I do, all of that comes into play. I see myself as a political artist: who gets arrested, who lives and who dies—all of that is politics. People think it’s not politics—until they come knockin’ on your door.