It was a pleasant sunny Sunday afternoon when I entered the American Visionary Art Museum’s Jim Rouse Theater in Baltimore. The large and airy room was filled with works of art – some whimsical, some poignant, some brooding and some overwhelming. The combination of space and art gave visitors plenty of food for thought as they gathered to watch "Prison Shorts."
The shorts were a product of the Maryland Correctional Training Center’s DRAMA (Direct Responses Alleviate Misdirected Aggression) club. Founded in 2006 as a component of AFSC’s Maryland Peace with Justice conflict resolution project, participants of the club create skits about real life institutional situations. Art and performance are used not only to illustrate differences that trigger conflict, but also to encourage prisoners to develop positive strategies for coping with violence and conflict.
While this work helps prisoners harness emotions, it also fosters creativity. Participants use theater to explore the quest for human rights and the search for personal fulfillment. It is this quest that made "Prison Shorts" fit naturally into the Life, Liberty and The Pursuit of Happiness Exhibit.
The performers presented a wide range of issues to the audience, and each character tackled obstacles in a different way. The short "Struggle of Woman" portrayed the internal challenges that an individual faces, especially after being in prison. This piece ended with the character overcoming fear, anger and old habits in order to look towards the future. Life. Another short depicted how incarceration can make a person feel powerless and helpless. The actor spoke for the artist when he said, "I refuse to let prison imprison my mind." Liberty. The sixth and final short was "Building for Tomorrow." The theme was acknowledgement of bad choices that had led to time in jail, but also hope for a better future. The actress metaphorically transformed her manacles into a scarf and stated, "They can’t take away my joy." The Pursuit of Happiness.
While watching the actors, all members of WombWorks’s Nu World Arts Ensemble, I felt I was given an opportunity to glimpse something special. Members of the ensemble were dressed in prison garb, and the large bright space seemed to close in around the audience and the performers. Here was an opportunity to see life inside a "correctional" facility – a place normally cut off from the world by barbed wire. Here was an opportunity to hear the voices of inmates. Just like the space the audience sat in, the performances were whimsical, poignant, brooding and even overwhelming at times. And they made us all think, long and hard, about the quest for human rights and the search for personal fulfillment – under all sorts of circumstances.
- Brooke McDonald