Piven Theater's EPIC Project Offers Self-Discovery, Fun, Freedom within Jail Walls
It’s a beautiful morning, but at 26th and California, the sun’s glare reflects harshly off the high silver fences and jagged razor wire as we enter Division 5 of Cook County Jail.
Following strict rules, we’ve left everything behind but the clothes on our back and our IDs. No purses, no phones, no wallets, no cameras, no jewelry, no pencils (you’re issued a floppy, tiny disposable pen if you ask), no spiral-bound notebooks, no maps, travel tickets, dental floss, wax, clay, no flowers--fresh or dried--no gum, no paper clips unless authorized. Those are just a few of a long list of contraband items.
Divested of our personal belongings and vetted to enter, we walk a maze of windowless, bland hallways with institutional walls whose shiny tiles are interrupted here and there by posters that say, “Happy summer,” and, “Be a pineapple: stand tall, wear a crown, and be sweet on the inside.”
We’re inside the country’s largest single-site jail. It covers 96 acres and eight city blocks. About 100,000 people circulate through the jail every year, with a daily population of detainees averaging 7,500. They’re mainly people waiting for their trial, not yet convicted of their charges.
It feels stifling, disorienting, unsettling. I try to imagine how I’d feel if I knew I wasn’t going to be going home later today.
We’re headed to the chapel, which this morning will serve as a theater. I’ve been invited by Evanston’s Piven Theatre Workshop executive director Leslie Brown, artistic director Jennifer Green, and development director Juliet Bond to watch and celebrate the culminating performance of Piven’s multi-week program EPIC, Ensemble Play in Cook County, which Piven began at the jail in 2016.
Each spring, summer, and fall, Piven’s EPIC ensemble--which comprises 10 to 15 women who are in detention at the jail--practices collaboration, courage, and self-discovery through theater games, improv, and original storytelling.
The classes are much like regular Piven classes at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. They’re taught by four Piven teachers, Gillian Hemme, Abby Pierce, Becky Bec McNamara, and Linda Stevenson. Added to the session is a poetry- and prose-writing component so participants can reflect on their experiences in the program.
“At its heart, theater is about telling stories, and everyone has a story,” says Jen Green, “And empowering people and lifting up underrepresented voices is always important. The women in this program are finding new ways to discover who they are, and to communicate and increase their social and emotional wellness in a highly stressful situation.”
Today, for 90 minutes, the women in this session, mostly in their 20s and 30s, and all women of color, escape from their life challenges and their monotonous day--there's very little to do in jail but play cards, talk, and watch TV--and show their audience, friends they’ve invited from their “tier,” and us outside guests, what they’ve learned.
They sing and laugh, play theater games, and act out age-old fairy tales.
The stories feature a big bad wolf, an angry Papa Bear, and cruel step-sisters, but also a fairy godmother, a shoe that fits, and a bed that feels “just right” for a little girl.
The fluorescent-lighted chapel is a sea of faded blue, the color of the “costume” both audience and players wear for this performance: jail-issue uniforms with “DOC” printed on the shirt backs and down one pant leg.
Ms. Lee Lee starts off the show. She’s a big woman with an even bigger personality. She’s been in jail for about two years. She’s one of two women slightly older than the rest and she’s been an EPIC participant since the beginning.
“It’s intriguing, enlightening, and fun,” she says about being in the ensemble.
Ms. Lee Lee introduces the ensemble members, performs, and leads some of the games. She maneuvers her hefty frame easily, jumping and dancing and twirling through the chapel, enthusiastically pulling in the audience (also young, also almost entirely women of color) to participate. Some are right there with her. Some are a more reticent to join in. But there are lots of laughs and some shy smiles in the pews.
The teachers, who, Ms. Lee Lee says, “are special women who help us get out of ourselves in this place,” mostly watch, but also guide and direct the players who in turn direct and lead us.
The games encourage the ensemble and audience to communicate using eye contact, cooperate by creating a cacophony of silly sounds, and to touch each other by creating freeze-frame living “portraits” that express a variety of themes, including heartbreak.
A game called “What do you need?” elicits answers such as “love!” “a new hairstyle!” “a hug!” and the most popular answer: “My discharge papers!”
I wonder only briefly as we play and laugh how these women--all mothers, all low-income, all women of color--ended up here. What crimes did they commit? Should they be held here while they await trial – separated from family and community because they don’t have the cash to post bail? Should anyone?
I know how unfair and broken the justice system is. But right now, in this stark chapel, in this moment, there’s a palpable sense of sisterhood, camaraderie, normality, humanity, and joy as we all get looser and let go.
After the games, the ensemble performs some hilarious and touching renditions of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Goldilocks. There's a lump in my throat when the ensemble proclaims out loud, “And they all lived happily ever after,” as the players take their bows.
The show done, congratulatory certificates bestowed, and the hugging frenzy dying down, we stand around and chat. I ask some of the other ensemble members-- Alashonza, Tiffany, Shawnquail, Sarah, Seanna, Sierra, Lisa, Ms. Matthews, Cynthea, Kenedee, and Lisa--what participating in EPIC means to them.
Their answers come fast, and I can’t keep up with my floppy, jail-issued pen, to write down everyone’s name as they speak.
“It lets us do something we may not have ever done out in the world,” someone says.
“Yeah, and maybe if we’d have had the opportunity to do stuff like this, we wouldn’t even be in here,” another responds.
“Mistakes are the best part, when you mess up and ad lib and then it becomes part of the script.”
“And it shows a different side of people and builds relationships. It makes me comfortable for people to see another side of me.”
“I never thought I could act, y’all. It renews your soul.”
“I feel like I’m breathing now.”
Ms. Lee Lee pulls me aside to tell me that she’s writing a memoir, The Gates and Doorways to Coming Home to Myself. She shows me one of the four notebooks she’s filled in tidy handwriting.
Her mother was, still is, a drug addict, she says, and her father was an alcoholic.
“I lived in Englewood, and it was dark. Life was uncertain,” she says. But when she’d visit her grandmother’s house in the Dearborn Homes, “That was light and love. I could smell her cooking before she opened the door.”
EPIC, she says, has played a big part in helping her heal.
Abby Pierce, who’s been teaching and playing theater games for 20 years, says that EPIC provides the women the time to explore different forms of self-expression and build community outside of the inhumane situation they're in.
“We hear over and over how much they appreciate that an outsider sees them as a human being and not just an inmate,” says Abby.
Working with the ensemble is one of Becky McNamara's favorite places to be.
“The women strive to bring their best selves into the room to elevate the rest of the ensemble," she says.
"The moments when everyone in the room is striving for that ideal are moments where each person's individuality is recognized, seen, and celebrated."
Saying goodbye and heading back into the bright sunshine to our car and our phones and our possessions, I feel more raw than I did walking in.
I spend the rest of the day acutely aware of my freedom and security. My questions from earlier return: What were the women in for? Is there a more humane, more effective, more equitable way to address crime and punishment? How do we as a society reconcile spending so much to house these women in jail when we provide so little support for them before they got here or when they get out?
“We try not to find out what brought the women to the jail,” Piven teacher Gillian Hemme tells me when I talk to her the next day. “But some of the charges we’ve discovered incidentally since we started the program include armed robbery, first- and second-degree murder, and repeat drug and burglary charges.”
But, says Gillian, about 25 percent of women in jails or prisons are there because they were with a man who committed a crime (and with a gun-related crime, everyone involved receives the same charges even if they didn’t pull the trigger). Another reason, she says, is if they’re in a domestic violence situation and the man calls the police on them--or if they fight back but can’t prove self-defense.
By sheer coincidence, in a Chicago Tribune article published Wednesday, journalist Annie Sweeney reported on a proposal just announced by a 100-member, all-female task force of experts, current and former prison officials, and formerly incarcerated women to cut the number of women locked up in Illinois prisons by half over the next seven years.
These advocates argue that the corrections system has largely ignored the needs of female inmates, many of whom suffered years of trauma, abuse, or poverty before winding up behind bars, according to Sweeney's report.
The report also highlighted the growing body of research on the troubled backgrounds of incarcerated women in Illinois. According to studies done in the state’s prison system, 98 percent have experienced physical abuse at some point in their lives; about 75 percent sexual abuse; and 85 percent intimate-partner and stalking abuse.
This past Tuesday night, in Evanston, I went to Piven to see Doorways, its production based on improv, writing, and spoken word pieces that originated in the EPIC ensemble.
One of the six actors on stage that night was Shavodka Jones, an EPIC ensemble member who was released from Cook County Jail on May 2, after serving four years. She was surprised and honored to be asked by Piven to perform and hopes she'll be asked again and again.
A mother of 10 children, all of whom are currently in foster care or in the care of relatives, Shavodka loved participating in EPIC.
"It made us feel free, even though we were locked up we could still be us," she says.
She tells me a funny story about how, after learning a game during an EPIC class where everyone played catch with an imaginary ball, she went back to her tier with some of the other ensemble members.
"Everyone was playing cards but we told them to put the cards down and we showed them how to hold an imaginary ball and make it look real," she says.
"We got a bunch of women to play catch. One of the guards broke the game up and said, 'you can't have a ball in here!' So I held up the imaginary ball and said, 'this one?' and tossed it over my shoulder."
Now working at Golden State Bakery on the south side, Shavodka says she's changed.
"I don't hang with the people I did before," she says. "That was then, this is now. I gotta better myself for my kids. Even though they're not with me, I have to better myself for them. I'm proud and happy to be out," Shavodka says.
"I love being free."