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"The Storyteller: For Alicia Ostriker" by Sara Warner
The story moves at the speed of light, and like light, the story is curved. There are no straight lines. The lines that smooth across the page deceive. Straightforward is not the geometry of space. In space, nothing tends directly; matter and matter of fact both warp under light.
- Jeanette Winterson, Weight, 145
sometimes the stories take you and fling you against a wall
sometimes you go right through the wall
- Alicia Ostriker “coda,” The Volcano Sequence
This is a story about storytellers. In telling it, I’m going to steal Stealing the Language, to appropriate it as a tool to analyze post-secular feminist playmakers. What’s a playmaker after all, but a poet’s closest kin. At their core both are storytellers, creators of “participatory performances, of communal expressions that operate on the expectation of shared human feelings” (Stealing the Language 238). The truth is I’ve been stealing the language for years now. Surely the poets will pardon my transgression. Like Abbie Hoffman, Alicia Ostriker wants us to steal this book—well, the methodology anyway. Steal the ideas; buy the book. We don’t want to rob the author of her retirement royalties.
In the sage and spirited tome that is Stealing the Language, Ostriker argues that revisionist mythmaking is a major strategy of feminist poets who seek to transform themselves and culture. “Myths are the sanctuaries of language where our meanings for ‘male’ and ‘female,’” subject and object, self and other, normative and deviant are stored. As Ostriker has so powerfully shown in Stealing the Language, Feminist Revision and the Bible, and The Nakedness of the Fathers “all myths central to a culture survive through a process of continual reinterpretation, satisfying the contradictory needs of individuals and society for images and narratives of both continuity and transformation” (Feminist Revision and the Bible 28). All vital myths, she maintains, “are paradoxically both public and private…they encode both consent to and dissent from existing power structures, and…they have at all times a potential for being interpreted both officially and subversively” (28). Through acts of mythic revision, feminist poets offer correctives to the “foundations of collective male fantasies” that sustain “phallocentric ‘high’ culture” (Stealing the Language 215) and challenge “the fallacy of objective discourse derived from the western conception of a God superior to Nature” (223).
Female playmakers employ these same strategies of mythic revision in equally radical measures. Ostriker’s work has been enormously influential in my attempts to theorize contemporary feminist dramaturgy, especially in teasing out what I am calling post-secular performance, dramatic work that is politically committed, environmentally engaged, and spiritually enchanted. I would like to share with you some of the ways in which I have adopted and adapted her work in my scholarship, teaching, and activism. I’d like to tell you a story about storytellers.
While completing my master’s degree in San Francisco in 1996, I met a woman, who like Ostriker, would change my life. Her name is Rhodessa Jones, and she is the founder and artistic director of the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women. Of the dozens of progressive, arts-based programs in women’s correctional facilities, The Medea Project is unique in its efforts to reduce recidivism. Founded by Jones in the late 1980’s, the group is a perpetually transforming coalition of artists, activists, and social workers who collaborate with inmates in a 3 to 4 month intensive workshop to create original full-length theatrical productions. The Medea Project is the only organization in the country, and possibly the world, that stages performances with inmates outside of the correctional facility for public audiences. A progressively minded sheriff gave Jones permission to release qualifying inmates from jail for public performances. Their productions are the stuff Foucauldians only dream about. Talk about panopticon: a row of squad cars lines the street in front of the theater; armed guards monitor all exits and entrances, and police officers occupy the front row of seats to protect both spectators and inmates. The Medea Project puts a whole new spin on “reality theater” by creating an impenetrable, and fully automatic, fourth wall.
Each Medea Project production is based upon a different mythical narrative. Recent shows have utilized Medea, Pandora, Sisyphus, Demeter and Persephone, and Inanna as frame stories. Jones uses mythology as a jumping off point to talk about imprisonment and about the cultural narratives and the social rituals that directly contribute to women’s incarceration. At the first meeting a Medea Project member recounts the foundation myth the group will use to create their performance. Jones gives the inmates nightly writing assignments in which they are asked to analyze a key element of the story in relationship to their lives. She creates a series of questions to guide the participants’ exploration of the myth. These are rooted in the specifics of the story at hand, but they generally deal with similar issues, such as: the call of the underworld, transgressions, missing or absent mothers, and the return home. The women read their narratives aloud to the group, and these writings form the basis of what will become the script for the public performance. The mythical tales that serve as the foundation of the Medea Project performance workshop seem rather tame in comparison to the incarcerated women’s stories, which often contain numerous and conflicting traumatic episodes, extreme violence and near death experiences. These stories are incredibly difficult for the inmates to tell to themselves, let alone embody for a room full of strangers. Mythic revision describes not only this group’s method of creating a script, but also their ritualized rehearsals process which involves preparing for the performance, but more importantly rehearsing for life on the outside once they are released from jail.
The 1990s was the most punitive decade in U.S. history; more people were incarcerated than in any prior decade, and this despite the fact that crime rates have declined steadily in this country since 1994. The total number of prisoners reached two million in February of 2000, giving the U.S. one quarter of the world’s eight million prisoners. The number of women in jail more than doubled in a decade – climbing from 44,000 in 1990 to 94,000 in 2001 (“Criminal Offenders Statistics”). Sixty-five percent of incarcerated women have a history of prior convictions. One in three are serving sentences for non-violent offenses, mostly drug or drug related charges. These numbers are staggering, and the figures for juvenile offenders are even more alarming. Minorities are more likely to serve time and to serve longer sentences for similar offenses than caucasians (“Criminal Offenders Statistics”). Women of color, lower-class women, and lesbians are subject to what Angela Davis calls “surplus punishment,” disproportionate time behind bars layered on top of a “pandemic of private punishment” (344-50). The physical jailing of women is often times nothing more than a not-so-scenic change of venue, as there are many ways in which women are incarcerated in this country, including institutionalized racism, poverty, and sexism.
As Meghan Sweeney has noted, “the pathologized and criminalized figure of the African American woman haunts public debate about welfare reform, single parent families and the war on drugs,” while “explicit discussions” of “black women as agents of crime remain relatively scarce in academic and popular narratives” (456). The discourse surrounding women and violence serves as what she calls, “a cultural decoy…a means of rendering invisible the routine social violences of the U.S. political-economic system” (457). The overwhelming majority of incarcerated women are survivors of childhood abuse, but “the connection between abuse and crime tends to function as an empty trope, a shorthand script for the notion that ‘broken homes’ and breaches of ‘family values’ spawn criminals” (460). Legal discourse renders victimization and agency as mutually exclusive, and “the justice system leaves little room for accommodating ambiguity or complex and partial notions of agency, responsibility, guilt, and innocence” (460). Feminist efforts to challenge reductive legal frameworks and juridical definitions of women are moot because the law requires victims. Sweeney characterizes the narrative prisons of legal and popular discourse, which rely upon normalizing strategies of representation, as “one-dimensional tales that produce a homogeneous set of political effects” (464). She advocates finding alternative strategies of representation that “bring visibility to the systemic socially sanctioned forms of violence against women that courts of law and public opinion continue to occlude” (463). With their police phalanxes and performance panopticons, Medea Project productions render hypervisible the bodies of marginalized women that the courts of law and public opinion routinely ignore. Rhodessa Jones’ mythic theater promotes alternative structures that attend to the complex experiences of incarcerated women by subverting the “racialized and polarized terms of the victim/agent script” (473).
Because there is no story, no readily identifiable or singular cause “that can capture the accumulation of lived experiences that lead so many women to prison,” Rhodessa Jones uses mythology as the basis of her performance workshop inside San Francisco County Jail (469). Mythical narratives provide access to a space and time outside of the logic of simple cause and effect, outside of history. In transporting us from quotidian time into messianic time, mythology dissolves the restrictive confines of the real. Myths refuse “know-it-all criticisms, common sense scripts, and…narrow…notions of reasonableness,” while simultaneously allowing Medea Project participants to tell “the kinds of stories that make perfect sense to women who end up behind bars (469). Like the Romantics, these inmates have “personally experienced forces within the self so overwhelming” that they quite easily relate “these to gods, goddesses, titans, demiurges, and demons” (Stealing the Language 213).
Walter Benjamin provides insight into why mythology is the most productive narrative framework for the Medea Project. “The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales” (102). A great storyteller, he continues, “offers no explanations. His report is the driest,” and that is why an ancient story “is still capable after thousands of years of arousing astonishing thoughtfulness. It resembles the seeds of grain which have lain for centuries in the chambers of the pyramids shut up air-tight and have retained their germinative power to this day” (90). Interpretations of myths may become fixed, but the stories themselves remain fluid and open to endless interpretation. In addition, myths promote community; they require not only an audience, but active participation on the part of the listener. “It is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it,” Benjamin counsels. “The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced upon the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them” (89).
I served as dramaturge and videographer for the Medea Project in 2001 and had the honor of selecting the myth on which the production was based. I chose a tale that I had recently discovered and with which I was completely obsessed, the world’s oldest recorded story, the Sumerian Queen Inanna. Dating to somewhere between 3500 BCE to 1900 BCE the myth tells of a young woman’s sexual initiation into culture, how she steals the holy laws of heaven, ascends to the throne, and chooses the lowly shepherd as her consort. It recounts how Inanna heeds a call from the Great Below, descends through the seven gates of hell to the underworld to see her sister Ereshkigal, who tries to kill her, and how she chooses to sacrifice her husband, rather than her girlfriend/guide or her children, in order to return home. As is typical of myths, this story provides no explanation as to why Inanna would embark upon these adventures. The Medea Project participants filled in the story’s silences with their own narratives.
In the workshop, Jones gave the women the following questions to write about during the three month rehearsal process:
1. What was/is your call to the underworld?
2. What were your 7 gates of hell? What did you give up?
3. Who is your sister? What lured you to her?
4. What is the wisdom of the underworld? What have you learned?
5. What do you have to do to save yourself?
6. Where do your loyalties lie? Who is loyal to you? To whom are you loyal?
Ostriker says that mythic revisions “are representations of what women find divine and demonic in themselves. They are retrieved images of what women have collectively and historically suffered; in some cases they are instructions for survival” (Stealing the Language 215). This aptly describes the Medea Project workshop on Inanna. The inmates had no trouble answering Jones’ questions about the underworld. They immediately connected life on the streets and in jail with the Great Below, and they listed self-respect and their children among the most valuable things they relinquished along the way. Most participants identified their long lost sister as their mother. These were women who neglected them, turned a blind eye when men sexually assaulted them, and sold them into prostitution for drugs or because they couldn’t stand the competition. The final two questions, however, were another story. No one seemed to know how to save themselves or where their loyalties lie.
The myth indicates that Inanna must sacrifice her dependence as a condition of her return, but the inmates found it almost impossible to narrate a story in which they were the agents of their own deliverance. In their responses the participants willingly gave over this position of power to men: to pastors, fathers, boyfriends, lovers, or pimps. The issue of loyalty was even more problematic. More than anything I was moved by the echoing silence that ensued when Jones called for the women to share their responses on this topic. Although the majority of the participants listed a relationship with a man as one of the ways they were planning to save themselves, no one seemed capable of morphing that fantasy into an actual allegiance or alliance. Though most of the women were mothers, not one named their children as persons to whom they were loyal. A few women did name their own mothers, noting their gratitude for the fact that grandma was taking care of their children while they were incarcerated.
It was not simply that the women could not answer these questions; they could not bear to be asked them. This assignment literally paralyzed the participants and threatened to bring the show to a halt. Having dealt with this same problem in production after production, Jones did what she always did: instruct the women to use the myth as their guide. She told the women to lie on the floor in a large circle with their heads pointed toward the middle and their eyes closed, holding hands with the women next to them. “We’ve written a lot about addiction,” Jones began. “We’ve written about the pain and suffering, the story of Inanna being in hell.” Take a deep breath, she directed, “and let’s go to the other side. Inanna has to ascend. She has to climb back up, back on her way home.” People, Jones called out:
“Find their names,” Jones told them. Slowly fill up the room with the names. As the participants called out their loved ones, Jones repeated them. “I hear mama. I hear Josa.” Let the names out; let the sound build. “Imagine that it is like smoke climbing out of the underworld.” As Jones repeated the names she heard the voices grew louder, blending with moans, cries, and wails. By the time the guided meditation was over, the women were completely spent, but they emerged from the circle mobile and conversant, no longer frozen or paralyzed.
if you live through this situation, and by miracles or just because you’ve done your time and there’s no more runs left in you, who do you have to ask forgiveness from?…In growing and turning into that queen again…who do you have to call out to on that road home? And it comes down to the question of who do you love…Is there somebody who has loved you despite all the bullshit you put them through?…Who would you go to see to say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m back from the underworld, and I just want to thank you for being there, for loving me and allowing me to grow...’
Intellectually I had understood the attraction of theater collectives, but for the first time in my life I felt their power. Though I was incredibly moved by the experience, I struggled to explain why this exercise alleviated the crisis and got the show back on track. It could not be explained away by catharsis. The production came and went. I said my teary goodbyes to the cast and crew and returned home. During a dissertation meeting in Princeton – as I swung in the hammock in Alicia’s backyard reading and sipping tea (trying not to vomit) – she sat at her kitchen table pouring over the latest draft. Next to my ramblings about the mediation circle Alicia wrote in the margin, “They haven’t lived that part of the myth yet. Jones lives it for them.” With the stroke a pen she solved the riddle that had plagued me for months. The inmates could address the questions about the underworld because they had been there, were, in fact, dwelling there. They could not describe the ascent because they hadn’t lived it. Furthermore, they could not imagine living it, because they could not imagine how to save themselves.
Jones lives the myth for the inmates and models the way out. She knows well that instructions for survival are part of the mythic structure. Enacting the role of the loving and faithful Ninshubur, Inanna’s vizier who paces at the mouth of the gates of hell and helps broker her release, Jones embodied what Benjamin calls the “liberating magic which the fairy tale has at its disposal” (102). Jones’ performance of Ninshubur allows the inmates to enact what they cannot yet image. It offers them a fleeting glimpse of what a better world might look like, one that might inspire them to recreate these performances in larger configurations of culture. Myth “shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to the dreamland, that lead to love and learning” (Women Who Run with the Wolves 469).
Even if the performance does not translate into action outside the jail cell or theater, the myth provides the “illusion of choice,” a feeling that one has options (The Future of Ritual 37). Jones does not cozen herself or the participants about the efficacy of the Medea Project, of the likelihood of translating the aesthetic or ritual choices the inmates make into socio-economic options. The obstacles incarcerated women face are huge, and the Medea Project is a struggling non-profit organization that works with them for all of three months. The Medea Project is not a rehabilitation facility, and there is limited contact with most of the women once the show is over. “This ain’t no Dreamgirls,” Jones will say. “I don’t delude myself that I’m making a hell of a lot of difference with this...I don’t expect these women to get out of jail and go right out and find jobs and stop smoking dope and suddenly become successful” (Imagining Medea 17).
Myths “are the stories we tell ourselves to make ourselves come true” (Winterson 145). Jeanette Winterson was recently commissioned to contribute to a series of mythic revisions by Canongate Press. She knew immediately which story she would choose. “The story of Atlas holding up the world was in my mind before the telephone call had ended. If the call had not come, perhaps I would never have written the story, but when the call did come, that story was waiting to be written.” Winterson writes, “I thought that if I could keep on telling the story, if the story would not end, I could invent my way out of the world. As a character in my own fiction, I had a chance to escape the facts” (137). “All we can do,” Winterson offers, “is keep telling the story, hoping someone will hear” (xvi). Inanna heeded the call of her sister Ereshkigal, Rhodessa Jones hears the call of the women in San Francisco County Jail, and Alicia Ostriker answered my call for a mentor.
If I had not met Alicia, and if she hadn’t supported my project, I might not have finished my degree. A dissertation is a mythic journey and graduate school, at least for me, was not unlike Inanna’s descent to hell. I had a great topic in the Medea Project, but no way to frame it. I knew that there was more to myth than is dreamt of in Adorno and Barthes’ ideology, more to theater and social change than Boal and Brecht. Alicia opened Pandora’s box for me. With her as my vizier, I found a way out of the Great Below and learned to imagine an academic life in which I could traffic in both high theory and mythology. In addition to being an inspiring, and always challenging, interlocutor, Alicia was and is my model for excellence in teaching and activism. More than any other professor I have had in all of my years of academia, she is the source of most of my ideas about feminist pedagogy. Some stories have happy endings.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Harry Zohn, Trans. Hannah Arendt, Ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
“Criminal Offenders Statistics.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2002. <http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/crimoff.htm>.
Davis, Angela Y. “Public Imprisonment and Private Violence: Reflections on the Hidden Punishment of Women.” New England Journal on Criminal and Civil Confinement, 24(2), 1998. 339-351.
Estes, Clarissa Pinkola Estés. Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Fraden, Rena. Imagining Medea: Rodessa Jones and Theater for Incarcerated Women. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. Feminist Revision and the Bible. NY: Blackwell, 1993.
-----. The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions. New Brunswick, Rutgers UP, 1997.
-----. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. NY: Beacon, 1987.
-----. The Volcano Sequence. Pittsburgh: U Pittsburgh Press, 2002.
Schechner, Richard. The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Sweeney, Meghan. “Prison Narratives, Narrative Prisons: Incarcerated Women Reading Gayl Jones's ‘Eva's Man,’" Feminist Studies 30.2. Summer 2004. 456-482.
Winterson, Jeanette. Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Hercules. NY: Canongate, 2005.
Sara Warner is Associate Professor of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University. Her book Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure (2012) received the ATHE Outstand Book Award and the Barnard Hewitt Award for Theater History (Honorable Mention), and was also a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.