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pgc: keeping the faith—the prison project…a review

By Michael Hacker

Michael Hacker finds performance and life truths inside this minimum security facility
(photo courtesy of the Mission Creek website)

Date: Saturday, June 6

Location: Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, Belfair, WA

The Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, or MCCCW, is situated in a rural area outside of Belfair, Washington, a pleasant village on the Olympic Peninsula, south of Bremerton. As the ferry docks at Bremerton, I’m confronted by the gunmetal gray of naval buildings and massive aircraft carriers which have stood rusting in the rain long past their prime. Bremerton is sedate and tough. There’s no neon or glitz. Incongruously, in the park next to the ferry dock, a couple is being photographed in tux and wedding gown.

It is a short drive from Bremerton to Belfair. But the roads are torn up and detoured with new construction, so I’ve added an extra hour just in case. Driving south, I pass through the outskirts of the blue-collar city and into the countryside, where Scotch broom in full bloom paints a mustard landscape capped by evergreens and dotted with manufactured homes.

My directions take me west of Belfair through more country, past an elementary school where three baseball games are going on simultaneously on different diamonds. All the parking lots are full and cars and trucks line the road. Further on, burring engine noise draws attention to a motocross track that has been carved out of the evergreen forest. A mile beyond, a sign reads: “Correctional facility—do not pick up hitchhikers.” Finally, MCCCW comes into view, a single story beige building that looks more like a high school or community college campus than a prison. Razor wire caps the mesh fence that surrounds the complex however, leaving no doubt as to the building’s function.

I’m early, so I wait on the steps with two other men. The older of the two, Steve, is waiting for the performance; his buddy is waiting to visit his girlfriend. Steve says his girlfriend Angie will be one of the participants in Keeping the Faith. He tells me he’s refused two routes, one to Detroit and one to Modesto, in order to be present for this event. Steve says Angie’s daughter is expecting. During the performance Angie reveals that her grandchild will be born while she is serving 24 months.

Everyone attending the performance is ushered through security. We sign in, surrender our IDs, make sure our names are on the list. We are led by officers to the gym, where about 200 folding chairs have been set up facing a muslin curtain that stretches the width of the gym floor. The curtain has puzzle pieces sewn into it. The puzzle pieces contain words: Respect—Honor—Loyalty; Beautiful—Strong; Peaceful. Values will be a central theme of the evening’s performance, as will family healing. “Mother Angel of Hope.” “My best friend and my daughter.” “When I see Spiderman I think of my son.” And finally, an expression of regret or sadness: “Amor es Dolor…”

After the outside audience is seated, offenders are ushered in. They are all women in khaki, in varying races, sizes, and shapes. They’re young, full of energy. I see none who looks over 40. Their chatter makes a roar. The audio equipment is tested and retested with squeals and roars of feedback. Finally, Pat Graney introduces the piece, the interns, her assistant Shannon Pena, who also is a past-participant, and Richard Gold, founder of Pongo Teen Publishing, the guest writer in residence who has taught workshops to incarcerated youth for 15 years. As will be seen, his work with these artists in preparation for this performance is amazing.

Keeping the Faith is art for the purpose of providing peer mentoring and peer counseling. This is the 15th year of Keeping the Faith, but it is also the first year that past participants have helped shape the event. It is important for the offenders to see strong women succeeding on the outside. The program notes that this is known as the KTF Transitions Program and was new in 2008. Moreover, as of 2000, Keeping the Faith expanded the Washington-based residency to reach incarcerated women around the country in a multi-year program of arts residencies in selected women’s prisons.

Graney concludes her introductory remarks by saying, “In prison you are not allowed to dance or sing.” So this event is a stark exception to the day-to-day activities of these 12 women who have made this piece.

Finally, the artists enter: 12 women in t-shirts of various colors and in dark slacks. They carry books containing their self-revelatory writings which they will read aloud, but first they throw them down on the gym floor, making noisy splats. The women command the space. Each figure is strong, self-assured, fearless. They mix and seethe, and finally, one steps forward. Someone in the audience shouts, “Maggie—that’s my roommate.” Margaret speaks her truth: I am smart, beautiful, strong… and she’s followed by others, who shout out their values, their strengths, and their truths: “I am mother, daughter, sister. I am shy, ashamed, user-friendly.” Bodies move, hair bounces, fabric folds. The audience murmurs its approval of their voiced truth.

Next come reasons but not rationales. Valerie, whose story throughout the evening is communicated with the sharpest clarity, perhaps because she has done all the hard, hard introspection and self-work she needed to do to prepare for release, says, “I’m 30 years old. I’ve been in prison for 12 years. I was shy, I had low self esteem, and I chose the wrong path in order to fit in. I’ve worked on myself and I’m ready for freedom…” Later, Wanda McRae, Superintendent of MCCCW, tells me that, “Valerie grew up in prison. She came in as a juvenile.” Speaking with Valerie after the performance I am amazed by her poise and centeredness. I am in the presence of a dignified woman who has transformed herself and commands respect. When she is released she will be a better citizen and stronger individual than she ever would have been had she never gone through this experience.

Desirae, exuberant and loving center stage, says with an impish gleam, “I was spoiled ROTTEN from BIRTH…”

Angie, Steve’s girlfriend, says, “I did meth on and off for eight years. My grandchildren will be born and I have 24 months to serve.”

Lori declares, “I’m a criminal. But I’m looking to change.”

Movement brings individuals forward to hold their places serenely until they feel the spirit to speak. Love is the topic. “I love my mother, my daughter’s face. I hope she will not make my mistakes.” And a call to action with regard to love: “Don’t talk about it—BE about it.”

Christine, whose poetic gifts are breathtaking and thrilling, speaks about the gestures of the infant in his crib beholding his mother’s face and his mother’s love.

This first segment is all about love. Love is tied to healthy relationships, particularly healthy family relationships.

Ute, whose sweet demeanor and childlike affect seem somewhat surreal in a penal environment, declares her love for her godmother. Mothers, grandmothers, and godmothers. The one virtue they all shared: they didn’t judge. Clearly, the root cause for most of these women was a fundamental feeling of personal worthlessness, an absolute lie that they believed and bought into, and which led them to make self-defeating choices. The performance this evening is an exposure of that lie, and a demonstration that each individual has undeniable value, resilience, and talent.

Margaret is one of the few artists to tackle the issue of romantic love. For her, love includes an embrace, being of service to the beloved, and seeing their inner value, “the diamond dazzle that is you.”

Thematically the evening doesn’t stray into hard feelings, rage, shame, or horror. Nobody declares that a cruel, heartless world did this to them. Domestic abuse isn’t explicitly mentioned. Chela, who sang Tu Solo Tu by Selena with Lori, and wrote a seriocomic “hate” letter to crystal methamphetamine, comes the closest when she says: “Truth is a lie. He lied.” A simple acknowledgment of betrayal. Some, like Sheila and Liza, speak of being sad, angry, or fearful, but they do not dwell in those feelings or states of being. They mention them only to put their current sense of hope, of strength and toughness in context. After the performance I asked past-participant Shannon Pena if this theme was imposed. “No,” she told me, “the substance evolved organically through the writings of the participants. In fact, I participated in the writing along with the performers and my own writing was far angrier than any of theirs.”

To exemplify their strength, the women dance in full ensemble to “Let’s Dance” by Lady GaGa. Maria, Teri, and Margaret dance a hip-hop trio to “Boom Boom Pow” by Black Eyed Peas, a rousing athletic piece that blows the roof off the gym. Maria takes point with confidence as she alternates popping, locking, and breaking. The three women have also choreographed the piece. During the Q&A after the show, Teri says with surprised pride that she has learned how to “bust-a-move” preparing for this performance.

Finally, the ensemble signs to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” with Christine, the poet, taking the lead. Christine has a talent not only for writing poetry but for reading it aloud. It seems that she is also very comfortable with sign language since she didn’t miss a beat.

According to PIO officer Judith Gerren, MCCCW is a minimum security facility. All the women offenders incarcerated here have between six and eight months left before release. Keeping the Faith is a work of art with a purpose. Form follows function and the form of this piece, retrospective and revelatory, was not therapeutic. There was no exploration of negative emotional states to achieve an abreaction: that work has long since been done. Keeping the Faith is a celebration of the victory that each of these women have experienced doing the work they needed to do to rediscover the value within themselves, and to reconcile with their families and with society. They did the work, and treated us to the results. Like the puzzle pieces sewn into the muslin curtain, we are all connected.

After the performance I drive south and around, rather than take the ferry back to Seattle. It allows me to contemplate what I have just seen and experienced to the gentle hum of miles under my tires—miles I am free to drive if I choose. This is the first time I have ever been inside a prison that is still in operation. While on the inside the gym looked like any high school gym you might have seen, one glance out the high side windows at the fence capped by coiled razor wire tells you it is not. These women are here because of choices they have made. Tonight they have repudiated those choices in public and gained dignity, self-respect, and, for what it is worth, my admiration. God, I want them to make it.

The Pat Graney Company publishes an annual Keeping the Faith—the Prison Project anthology, which collects the writings of all the program participants (including Christine’s amazing poetry and Valerie’s heartbreaking struggle). A copy of the anthology can be obtained from the Pat Graney Company office.

Major support for Keeping the Faith comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Raynier Foundation, 4Culture, Mayor’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, and others. For information concerning forthcoming Keeping the Faith performances and projects, or to donate to support the future of this incredibly worthwhile outreach program, please contact:

The Pat Graney Company
1419 S. Jackson, Studio 11
Seattle, WA 98144
Tel 206.329.3705