Co-authored with Dr. Yasmine Van Wilt, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Mellon Fellow at Union College, NY, Kobalt/AWAL singer-songwriter, dramatist, academic, and contributor to Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global.
This is the fourth of a series of interviews with extraordinary people who are working in partnership with or using their skills and training as artists and humanists to improve their communities, challenge assumptions, and advance our understanding of the human condition.
Performer, teacher, director Rhodessa Jones is Co-Artistic Director of San Francisco’s performance company Cultural Odyssey. Jones directs The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, an award-winning performance workshop committed to incarcerated women’s personal and social transformation, now in it’s 23rd year. As recipient of US Artist Fellowship, Jones expanded her work in jails and educational institutions internationally. She conducts Medea Projects in South African prisons, working with incarcerated women and training local artists and correctional personnel to embed the Medea process inside these institutions. In 2012, she was named Arts Envoy by the US Embassy in South Africa. Recent US residencies include Brown University and Scripps College Humanities Institute. Recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from CA College of the Arts, San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Lifetime Achievement Award, SF Foundation’s Community Leadership Award, Non-Profit Arts Excellence Award by the SF Business Arts Council, and an Otto Rene Castillo Award for Political Theater.
YVW: How did you come to find your aesthetic?
I was a hippie, you know. That’s my grounding. I read the IChing. And I have always traveled. You have to travel. It is part of my recipe for Creative Survival. When I got this job with the California Arts Council, and they asked me to go into the jails and teach aerobics to women….it was transformative. It all started there, with aerobics! It was important to me to be with the women in the prisons, to be a midwife with them as they transitioned through their grief and trauma and suffering. One of my brothers was incarcerated, but the idea of teaching aerobics to these sullen, depressed women when they looked at me like this woman was from the moon….
And for me, as an artist and human being, how can I apply creative survival, how can I speak, how can I help them with the process of saving their own lives? It all started with helping them to feel alive….it began there. And I was willing to share my own story, being an African-American woman, and the population was largely African-American and Latina. I talked about my daughter, my dance with dangerous men, my narrow escapes with drugs, and they were fascinated that I would share so much. And they loved that I didn’t judge them, that I was willing to share of myself….and then the stories started pouring out, people wanted to share their stories. And that was the seed that was planted. That was the beginning of the story.
The sheriff at that time was an angel. He supported my work. And I can tell you that the women I met were the original feral women, they are wild...they were the original women who run with wolves….and their self-destruction was rooted in feeling like they have failed the system, and all of this became fodder to discuss and build.
Sean Reynolds was getting her MSW; she was there to help me see the places that needed the scab pulled back, that needed light. She was already doing a life class with these women when they came into jail. Many of the women I met were just looking for love in all the wrong places; we all have done it. We are all headed for hell in a certain way, and we are lucky if someone comes along that helps us find purpose. I met some beautiful women in the prisons; you could see that beyond all their pain.
The first man I loved told me he’d be with me forever. Of course, when I got pregnant, he ran a-mile-a minute. So I had planned to leave for a home for unwed mothers. And my father said “No, you’re not giving the baby away. If you need to go, go, but you leave my blood here. We will take care of her, don’t think about abandoning this child.” So then I had my daughter at 16, and it was huge. To this day, my daughter is 51, and we’re still turning corners and clearing shadows together. We are so close and intertwined. I’m not a proponent of teenage parenthood, but I am grateful for my daughter. I ran into a lot of problems with culture, and my daughter has suffered a lot in ways I couldn’t predict. And so I ask her to forgive me, and she says that she loves me. And I love her with every fiber of my being. My story was my granddaughter’s sixteenth birthday present. My granddaughter, she’s my heart. She’s got a degree in psychology, and she is finding her own way. She is her own woman.
YVW: What made you decide to share your story?
Well, I had to ask myself, “How do I take care of the global community? I always tell people that I was sent to do this work, to be with the women that fall off the wagon, who disappear. It is almost crazy...worrying about daughters who are not my daughters...and the sisters, but I can’t quit...this is what I have to do. Somewhere in the heavens, some energy or the gods or goddesses, they are saying “You will do this.”
I was 9 years old. My older brother asked me to watch his wife-to-be; he wanted me to tell him when she was smoking. And do you know what he did when I told him that I did see her smoking? He pushed a fistfull of cigarettes into her mouth. That was it. I refused. I was not going to be made complicit in the ill-treatment of another woman. That was the loud-and-clear call. We talked about this last night with my prison group; their whole journey has been about competing with other women. Who has the best body? Who is the best sex partner? Sean and I designed a masturbation workshop for the women. We told them to go away and touch themselves. And the prostitutes had a hard time. The top whores who never had an orgasm. A couple of these women fired their pimps after the workshop. And we were empowering these women to find something extraordinary in themselves. Just the word vagina is so powerful. I’m trying to create a series right now on the history of the vagina.
YVW: What advice would you like to give to young artists?
Look at these spiritual and religious teaching. READ Morrison. Use storytelling. I always teach storytelling because we tell stories that help to navigate our lives and our processes of understanding meaning. When you really surrender in storytelling, you become open. We need to just remember that we are all telling stories and sharing them. We have to finds ways to process and embody these stories.
People live and people die. I have to remember this when I am weighed down by the tragedy.
YVW: I am reticent to ask this question because I sincerely hope it is not disrespectful. What should white feminist allies do?
What I am struggling with right now is that I refuse to treat this as a divided America. We are all Americans...I’ve worked with white women. And they say “it wasn’t me.” Don’t be defensive. Just listen. Open your heart and your ears. And just listen. And let people know that you’re listening. And that you’re really engaged. We ALL need to be ready to hear someone’s story. We need to come to conversations with open hearts, and we need to be one of the good guys, but we need to be ready to listen to what has happened to them. We need to receive and give acceptance. We can cry together.
But now we’ve got to stop and take action together. If you’re educated and you’ve been exposed, be willing to be exposed more. And I think that black people and brown people too...we have the lion’s share of goodness because we’ve had to get through. And your voice as a white person can change the game. So be still, and really learn to listen. And you’ll be asked to respond.
I had the great pleasure of being in the audience when Alicia Garza spoke at Hamilton College. And everyone was looking up at the cops. You gotta remember that practicing civil liberty is like blowing a dog whistle. And the authorities were treating her lecture, her resistance as an act of danger. Just because we utter the fact that we want to be recognized as part of the human history of the world. The students had a real lesson from Alicia. Because we all know that even if a black person does nothing wrong, a police officer can shoot him or her, and it’s ruled as a “stand your ground” case. But now we’re done with reflection. We are ready to act. What I’ve learned to do in this world is adapt. I can be an actress: I can be quiet, but I can also raise hell. And I’m androgynous. I could get killed just because of the energy I have for this issue. I am so ashamed of our country. I am so ashamed of our country.
Like Baldwin says in I Am Not Your Negro, I was taught to pledge allegiance to the country, and yet no allegiance is pledged to me, but I have that blue passport, and I travel all over the world, and when I return home, I am always reminded of our trauma. Of my mother’s stories of lynching. My mother as a girl was taken to lynchings. She was a sharecropper. Still we brought white lovers home. And she shared our reality, despite her reality. She was intelligent and loving enough to really care about white people. We’re all beautiful. All of my siblings. And we’re all strong, and pretty and smart. And she understood that when we’d go out into the world, everyone would want to be with us.
The American culture forgets that we will fall in love with each other. I had a great love affair with a Mexican man, and it was the richest love affair and sexual affair with food, and drink and laughter. I turned 50, and then this guy shows up. And this man knocked on my car window, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to be disrespectful but you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” And I was in my gym clothes, I ain’t had no life in a long time. So I said, “The most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen is going to call you if you give her your number.” For eleven years, we met on Tuesdays and Sundays. When he died, people didn’t know how to support me. My own family had a hard time understanding. I let go of a lot of people because they had a problem with his being Mexican. When I talk to people like you, I realize how much has happened. I have been dressed in the divine….
YVW: “Dressed in the divine” ... You are like a pure vessel of the muses!
When I leave this planet, I want to feel like I made a difference.
YVW: You have made a difference! Such a difference!
Yes, and that is why we all just have to stay our course.
YVW: Who inspires you?
Of course, the great artists like Nina Simone, Sarah Bernhardt...Katherine Hepburn, Nefertiti...Susan B Anthony. Virginal Wolf. Alice Walker. Harriet Tubman. Sojourner Truth. Gertrude Stein of course. Coco Chanel. Martin Luther King Jr. And Colette was one of my early influences. And Michelle Obama and Eve Ensler...I directed one of her shows at the Lincoln Center, and she was one of the first people who really made us think about how little connection we had with our bodies. And it brings you back to something so primal...The most important inspiration for me. Was. And is. My mother. She told me: “Be a woman. Don’t be a dress.” Say what you mean, and mean what you say. And it is for you to figure out. I am an amazing cook because I was raised by women who had to take whatever they had and make it delicious. That kind of earth magic has shaped it a lot.
YVW: I wish there were 500 of you on this planet!
(laughing) I’m working on shaping some other ones. We need to just not get twisted up in our lives. And we women need to support each other. Women. We are the purveyors of the culture of humanity….all women bleed….we grow babies….that’s real, that’s amazing. My mother had 19 pregnancies, and 12 of us lived. So she knew something. So all the ladies who are reading should be mindful not to believe the hype. We’re powerful beyond all measure….we have to step up and decide not to go to war.
I directed Lysistrata for The African American Shakespeare Company. It’s an interesting time, there is already such suffering. Here in California, in San Francisco, money had been allocated to provide California with an electric rail. The Obama Administration signed over 408 million dollars for the project, but the opposition has blocked it. And I am sure this is because we are a refuge city. What hurts me a lot is that little children have been affected by the conversation. There are little children I meet when I walk in my neighborhood who are afraid of me. These little kids, they look back to the adult with them, and I’ve got to reach out and speak to them because I have to counter everything they think they know about me. People are saying terrible things, and their children are literally inhaling it, and that incenses me. I deal with it by saying hello, calling them sweet names and dropping down so we’re eye-to-eye. That hurts me that they’re made to be afraid. Because I’m a child whisperer and a dog whisperer. I’m a grandmother.
This Interview Series is a co-production of the forthcoming book on How Extraordinary Partnerships with the Arts and Humanities Are Transforming America.