Theatre behind bars

“There’s a lot of people here talking about Jesus. God bless them but we’re talking about the God in us, cause we’re all holy,” says Rhodessa Jones, as she sits in a prison courtyard with around 24 women participating in this year’s installment of Serious Fun at Sun City, a theatre project with incarcerated women at Johannesburg Correctional Centre. The programme has been running since 2008. “It’s about helping people understand what you understand about being incarcerated.”

Rhodessa Jones, the director of Serious Fun, is conducting a round-table discussion with her actors, asking them what they have learned besides the fact that “crime doesn’t pay”. Most of the inmates are new to the project, a few among them (four) are veterans. She gives all the newcomers an ear. Some get carried away as they recount their crime stories. Others break down emotionally and have to exit the circle to collect themselves.

Structured around a series of moving monologues (emanating from the women’s writings) threaded together by group activities like narrative song. Serious Fun at Sun City is quirky and illuminating, and for the participants, a hugely cathartic experience that puts them in the driver’s seat of their own quest for redemption. “I love the innate intelligence, the verve of these women,” says Jones. “I think that’s what the prison industrial complex around the world should be doing, using the prisons to educate. A lot of these women have been told they have nothing to say.

Working with co-director Idris Ackamoor in several prisons around the world has sharpened the pair’s perspective on incarceration and some of contrasts they see between the South African prison and that of the United States, one of the few indistrialised countries where the death penalty is still in existence. “South African prisons are more humane in that women are fed better,” she says.

“There is a looseness in our interactions, but getting in is still a major feat. There’s a lot more freedom [of movement], as people can wander in and watch [the rehearsals]. What I understand is that there are a lot of classes offered and there is training in life skills but the trick is how does it apply? How can the prison industrial complex help people when they get out? I have visited a lot of women that are outside now and they don’t have any work. So the stigma has not been lifted. So the question is what can prisons do to help people jumpstart."

Ackamoor, the deputy director, says, “So while inside it’s more humane, it’s kind of inhumane once you are let out of jail. Our concern is that the next step once you are released is kind of ignored.”

Subjective sentencing

Ackamoor says that the fact that South Africa’s prison system has only existed for 18 years within a democratic dispensation, means that it is still trying to find its feet, hence the huge disparities in sentencing. “Let’s say you get caught with a little cocaine, in America you won’t get 16 years,” he says. “Here it is routine even if you are caught in victimless crimes.  Some of the sentences are just incredible.”

Jones interjects: “On the subject of victimless crimes, if you’re smuggling, there are lots of victims down the line. If someone is caught selling stuff, what you realise is that it’s the women who are victimised. Everything you are told is so upside down once you are in South America. “

Idris adds that the jury system also plays a role in alleviating sentences. “A jury of your peers is less likely to give a first offender 15 years [for smuggling]. If its all dependent on the judge, sometimes the judge can have a bad day, or can go according to trends – basically just throw the book.” Also, time already served while awaiting trial is rarely a factor when it comes to sentencing in South Africa.

"It would be nice if they could embed it in the whole system as part of the rehab programme at correctional services and assist in providing the resources to make it grow", Urban Voices director Roshnie Moonsamy says."It would be great if the government could commit funding to fund a travelling troupe of former inmates who have come off the Madea Project. It would assist in educating young people about the consequences of committing crime it would give them skills, training and it would help in the fight against crime."

Serious Fun at Sun City is an Urban Voices/ Madea Projects: Theatre for Incarcerated Women production in partnership with Johannesburg Correctional Services.

It starts at 11 am Saturday.

People can go directly to the prison or they can take the bus at 9.30am from the Market Theatre parking lot. Entrance is free.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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