Dressed in varying shades of black and white, five former inmates joined the Judy Dworin Performance Project in a Thurday night performance at the New Haven Free Public Library. Meant to expose the isolating effects of inhumane treatment in prisons and correctional facilities, the performance featured a combination of song, interpretative dance and poetry.
The performance, which drew a crowd of about 40, was one of multiple events organized in coordination with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It sought to protest against the torture of prolonged isolation in prisons — commonly known as solitary confinement — and humanize the incarcerated. As such, the ensemble performed selections of original works such as “Brave in a New World” and in “In My Shoes.” The narration, accompanied by dancing and original music, told real stories of former and current inmates’ struggles with sensitive topics like drugs, alcohol, intimate partner violence and rape.
“Part of the idea of the work would be to get the voices out of the women who do not have the opportunity or the capacity to share their own stories,” said Robin Cullen, a former inmate at York Correctional Institution and a guest performer. “In addition to our own stories, we write other ones to let the public know who we really are and what’s really going on.”
Much of the performances focused on the smaller, very human experiences of the guest artists. For example, Robert Byrd, who had spent time in prison after a DUI, performed a step-dance accompanied by a narration of his story. Recounting how he was recognized by former high school classmates in his 10-man cell and reduced to braiding hair in exchange for items that reminded him of a life beyond the walls of his prison, such as ramen noodles, Byrd incorporated his feelings of anger and shame into the dance, utilizing an open-air cube to symbolize how entrapped he felt in prison.
Translating such experiences into artistic performance, however, was not as clear cut as the performance seemed to be. Kelly Donnelley, one of the main narrators in the performance, struggled at first with public speaking.
“I’ve been with Judy for 11 years now and when I first came to her, I was a singer in the very back,” said Donnelley. “We had other people speak my pieces; the biggest challenge for me was believing in myself. But when I found out the kind of work that Judy was doing — taking our voices from the inside and presenting it out in her ensemble — that encouraged me and inspired me to speak my own voice.”
Many of the speakers echoed Donnelley’s sentiment. Kathy Wyatt, a guest artists who spent eight-and-a-half years at the York Correctional Facility, drew from the experiences of current female inmates in her performance of a poem entitled “Love Letters.” Addressing domestic violence and sexual abuse, the poem flowed hauntingly as it exposed the often toxic conditions that can lead to incarceration.
Other performances presented snippets of life after prison, such as one that recounted the first time that families are reconnected and the struggles of having to gather documentation as proof of existence after a long time of conviction.
“It was a huge responsibility and a daunting one,” said Lisa Matias, an ensemble member and teaching artist. “The fact is it all goes back to the ‘us and them’ sentiment. We’re all human, and so whether they were pieces from our own experiences or pieces that we we’re creating from someone else’s story, there was a commonality and so hopefully whether you’ve been in prison or not, there’s something that transcends the lines and hopefully touched you.”
The Judy Dworin Performance Project is a Hartford-based nonprofit founded by Judy Dworin in 1989.