Artspring Women Prisoners See Selves in Greek Tragedy Elektra

Written By ArtBurst Team
October 21, 2016 at 7:09 PM

Originally published in the Miami Herald on April 15, 2011 The women prisoners at the Homestead Correctional Institution uses art and acting to soothe troubled souls. The modest crowd waits patiently to get inside the Homestead Correctional Institution. Three people at a time pass through a heavy steel door, then a metal detector to find their way to folding chairs in the state prison’s visitors’ room. The audience of lawyers, therapists and artists are not there to visit inmates. Rather, they’re there to watch the prisoners perform the Greek tragedy, Elektra. Sylvia, one of two women in shapeless blue cotton shirts and pants, has a ready smile as she hands out programs. Only a few hints of gray give away the fact that she has been in prison for 26 years. She is one of the actors in the nationally recognized non-profit Artspring program, which uses art-based educational programming to develop life skills for inmates and allow them to tell the story of their lives through art. These women could be serving prison sentences for murder or more. In this crowd, no one asks questions about their past. These community performances, where inmates share original dance and poetry up to four times each year, are all about preparing them for their future. That is one of the most valuable aspects of programs like Artspring, according to the group’s founder and artistic director, Leslie Neal. “Many of these women will be getting out and coming home to their communities,’’ Neal said. “Without programs like these that help raise their self esteem, they won’t make it.” Florida prisoners have a 66 percent rate of returning to prison after release – but Neal says not one of the nearly 40 women Artspring has been tracking over the past 18 years, have returned – especially the ones who have participated a year or more. On this day, the actors are preparing for a full length scripted play for the first time, despite the challenges that prison life presents. They cannot wear costumes. Anything besides prison blues is seen as a flight risk Materials and tools for building props and sets are limited. Those drawbacks don’t stop the Artspring women as they prepare to present the Greek tragedy – where the heroine plotted revenge against her mother and stepfather for the murder of her father, The inmates create costumes by taking brightly-colored plastic table cloths and tying them into togas over their uniforms. Jewels and crowns are made from foil inside popcorn bags. And, in the final scene in Elektra, a red tablecloth is unfurled to represent blood. Performing Elektra was director Lavonne Canfield’s idea. An Artspring faculty member for the past seven years, Canfield also teaches theater at the New World School of the Arts in Miami. “The story of Elektra reminded me of the stories the women in prison would tell me about their own lives,” Canfield says. In this version of Elektra, Canfield revises the ending, giving the heroine power. Nineteen women inmates sign on, making a cast so big that multiple actors share the major roles. After the more than hour-long performance on a recent Sunday, the women mingle with audience members, answering questions, relating how they spent two months poring over the script, discussing the characters’ motivations, and relating them to their own lives. The women reveal what they saw of themselves in their roles. “I could relate to the pain and the anger,” said Rhonda, a tall young woman – one of five actors sharing the role of Elektra. “I could even relate it to my own mother.” She stops and goes to join her fellow actors gathering for a photograph. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” She doesn’t have to. During the performance, her furrowed brow and intense eyes communicate exactly what she felt. Another Elektra, 28-year-old Valessa, identifies so much with the character that she writes additional dialogue for the script. Imprisoned since she was 15, Valessa sees herself in the play. “ Elektra was my history,” she says. For Jessica, another young actor who played Elektra, the way some parts of the play fit each actor’s experience seemed uncanny. Incarcerated at 17, Jessica believes she has undergone a process of transformation that she sees in the play as well. “Being an adult now, I can relate to the vengeance I felt as a teenager,” she said. “Because I went through the process of forgiveness, I was able to see through the part of vengeance without totally breaking down.” That forgiveness comes through in the Jessica’s performance. As for Sylvia, the Artspring veteran who has been imprisoned for 26 years, she said she has never given up hope that she may be free again. In the meantime, though, she stays with the program. “I need this to keep me focused. It keeps me human.”

latest posts

Flamenco Festival Miami XV Honors Past Masters, Looks t...

Written By Helena Alonso Paisley,

This year’s performances at Flamenco Festival Miami range from intimate guitarist/dancer duos to no-holds-barred extravaganzas.

Dance NOW!’s Site-Specific ‘Havisham!’ Leap...

Written By Guillermo Perez,

Dance NOW! Miami, revives Charles Dickens' antagonist as the central interest in “Havisham!” blessing her with a backstory.

New works from young choreographers bloom in Miami City...

Written By Guillermo Perez,

Two young choreographers bring fresh works to Miami City Ballet’s “Winter Mix.”