The reboot of last fall’s NWA Prison Stories Project, Stories from the Inside Out is a show not about, but from the perspective of women on the inside. These past four months, 12 incarcerated women participated in the multi-genre workshop. The end result will be a public performance this Friday, April 19 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – a theatrical reading of their work interpreted by a small ensemble of actors. The folks behind the production are the same determined women who began this project last year. Kathy McGregor brought the model for the project to Fayetteville. A local storyteller herself, she worked with Elaine Blanchard, the progenitor of Prison Stories, in Memphis and was inspired to carry the torch home. Erika Wilhite serves as artistic director for the program and shapes the participants’ work into the final script, sound edits each show, as well as acts in it. Katie Nichol is the project’s main writing instructor, leading the women through months of poetry workshops in which they gather the pieces that will ultimately tell their story, an opportunity most of them have never had.
Sunday afternoon I sat down with Erika, Kathy and Katie for the first read-through of the script. As they worked, timing the reading, editing it, they returned again and again to their own hopes for the women they had worked with. “I’m worried about her,” Wilhite said of one woman who seemed to be holding back, not ready to “dig deep.” She says that that notion, believing in the importance of telling the painful and personal in life, comes from almost a year of watching these groups of women discover who they are through storytelling. The work is just as frank and thoughtful as the first performance, but this version, told through the stories of 12 new women (younger than last time, Wilhite told me), has a little more levity to go with all of the regret. The participants, the three of them confess, tell them things they have told no one else, often despite years of counseling in the system. There is something different about the format of their program that makes it easier, something about telling a story through art that frees it.
Nichol and the others employ various modes of storytelling, poetry, fiction, film and music, all of which explore the inciting incidents, the disruptions in their lives that have led to incarceration. Nichol noted that the process is really organic – session by session they let the inmates shape their own experience with the project. The through line of these stories may be unsurprising, abuse, drugs, violence, yet something startling pervades underneath them. These women fear what happens when failure becomes a place of no return, but by telling the truth behind that failure they are empowered by it. The audience becomes witness to a nascent hope that turning and facing that fear might mean its release.
Local musician, Shannon Wurst, has also returned to the project, helping the participants describe their story through song. Sitting in a sunny living room at the Wilhite residence, I listened to Kathy McGregor singing a song one of the inmates wrote – this one about following the wrong man. Giving voice to painful history becomes its own kind of triumph in these straightforward tales with their all too familiar themes of broken homes and broken hearts. When I last spoke to Wilhite she told me that their initial realization as organizers was in “understanding the power of story.” Now that she has seen another 12 women find their own path through storytelling her appreciation has only deepened. They are already discussing improvements on the Prison Stories model for the next group of women.
Before it is shown in public, the actors will give a performance of Stories from the Inside Out for the facility’s inmates, all crowded into a common room in their identical yellow jumpers, the color of which serves as inspiration for the poem that starts the show. Some have worn them longer than others; they are all counting down to the day they no longer have to.
“I believe with all my heart that everyone is a hero,” Wilhite says, “some just have different obstacles.” Some obstacles seem more insurmountable than others, though. The inmates of the NWA Community Corrections Center have endured hardships the majority of Americans have never known and are lucky they haven’t had to. These women are survivors of their stories, pushing past unbelievable barriers.
The work they are doing, McGregor told me, is “validating [these women’s] emotional lives.” As in the first Stories Project, the women also read Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” McGregor says that despite literacy barriers or any initial difficulty, they worked through the reading, always coming back to their twice-weekly sessions with new insights on the book. She told me that the images that center on loss were especially powerful for them, but they responded collectively to one in particular: “She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was… She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.”
For Hurston, the shelf of the human heart cannot hold everything so it becomes important what we must hold onto and what we can work past. For the women of Stories from the Inside Out, the path to a better life seems to begin by taking stock of where they come from and where they want to be. It is a very personal story for each of them, so it must take a great deal of courage to tell it.
Local actresses Erika Wilhite, Arianne Ellison, Jordan Scott, Jocellyn Morelli and Whitney Masters will bring voice to the histories of these women in the parish hall of St. Paul’s, 224 N East Ave., on April 19. A reception is set for 7:30 p.m. with the performance beginning at 8 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $10 at the door, but all are invited regardless of ability to pay.
Stories from the Inside Out
What: Public staged reading performance of inmate stories presented by the NWA Prison Stories Project
When: 8 p.m. Friday, April 19 – Reception at 7:30 p.m.
Where: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 224 NE Ave, Fayetteville
Past coverage: Women inmates’ stories to shine on stage at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville – Fayetteville Flyer (10/1/12)