Representation matters. As artists and patrons of the arts, we’re currently seeing great demand for the creation and consumption of work that addresses a plurality of voices and the many ways of being, of living. But when you attend a mainstream theater to see a production that is itself of the mainstream—even as it addresses critical issues and multiple points of view—can it really be said that you’re getting the most representative version of those stories? How do we create space for the voices of the people most impacted by those situations, and avoid watering down the narrative to suit the dominant aesthetic?
Since 1990, the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women/HIV Circle, led by Rhodessa Jones of Cultural Odyssey (currently in its 40th year), has performed works by, with, and inspired by women who are or have been incarcerated. Currently, they work in collaboration with women from UCSF’s Women’s HIV program. In creating space for ignored voices, the Medea Project doesn’t ask politely—they demand their rightful place at the table. With their latest show, When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon?, the multi-cultural, multi-generational ensemble addresses issues of violence against women in a series of frequently poetic vignettes, pulsing with vitality, vision, and veracity.
The mood is set before the show begins, with pre-curtain projections of injustices alongside revolutionary women over the centuries: the interior of the Brookes slave ship, Angela Davis, Tiananmen Square, Tarana Burke. The voice that opens the show is a recording of an incarcerated woman, credited only as "Jillian" in the program, who walks us through the horrors of her abuse.
“You’ll make it,” the voice promises. “Never give in.” From the back of the Brava Theater the women enter, dressed to move in flowing fabrics, wide trousers or leggings, and hair braided, bound or flowing freely. Together they inhabit the ode of the “Feral Woman,” led by Lisa Frias, one of the company choreographers, with fluid arms and uninhibited stances.
“I’ve come to rescue you from all that silences you,” she promises, addressing not just the ensemble, but the entire audience, as they take the stage in a burst of color and energy and rustling fabrics.
And indeed, as the performance progresses to a series of almost 30 ensemble movement pieces, poetry, song lyrics, and solitary monologues—life-affirming litanies and heart-wrenching tales of abuse—the assembled audience is frequently encouraged and moved to respond. Audible exhalations of held breath. Affirmations and applause. Urgent murmurs. There is a stage, true. But there’s no fourth wall separating or sanitizing the audience experience. We’re a tangible part of the performance, our very presence an affirmation of the importance of showing up for your neighbors, your families, and your fellow travelers.
When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon? is a glittering chain of a performance, each small vignette a link of equivalent weight to the next, as the ensemble moves in and out of each piece with grace and confidence and each woman gets her own chance to shine.
Some standouts: the moment when Medea Project founder Rhodessa Jones enters the room, with a poem and a prayer, leading the audience into offering dedications to Christine Blasey Ford, Maxine Waters, Shirley Chisolm, Angela Davis, and Stormy Daniels. A wild, angry, and cathartic dance piece with the women beating on picnic chairs with drumsticks with ferocious abandon. An intense, uneasy monologue, “The Abyss of Dis-ease,” performed by Angela Wilson wearing a menacing mask and wielding a whip. A pair of equally intense vignettes detailing prostitution, drug addiction, and domestic abuse by Felicia Scaggs, who’s been with the Medea project since its inception. The harrowing “Exorcism,” by Uzo Nwankpa, a recounting of the many traumas that shaped a young life.
With no overarching narrative or single moment of climax, the rhythm of the evening is very much one of emotional peaks and troughs, of agony and awareness. (Occasionally, long-time ensemble member Fe Bongolan perches expertly on a cajón, providing a welcome rhythm for her fellow performers to move to.) It culminates in a litany of survival and triumph presented by each of the women in turn.
When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon? embodies the healing potential of speaking up, speaking out, speaking the truth to whomever is willing to listen. For the audience, it also exemplifies the healing potential of active listening, of making and holding space for these essential stories to be told.
It’s work that may admittedly never capture as broad an audience as the Broadway darling du jour, but it's work that deserves every bit as much attention.
'When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon?' runs through Nov. 4. Details here.