We are thrilled to announce that Tatiana Chaterji is a 2017 Cal Shakes Artist-Investigator, continuing a residency with women incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin. A longtime collaborator with Cal Shakes Artistic Engagement – as a moderator for our Actualizing Women’s Empowerment Civic Dialogue, a youth trainer and facilitator for our Community Network Project with BAY-Peace, and a facilitator and performer with Love Balm for My SpiritChild – Chaterji’s project will further investigate theater as a vehicle for expression, freedom, and healing within and beyond prison walls.
When Cal Shakes visited FCI Dublin with our community tours of The Tempest and Othello, women told us they wanted an opportunity to move from audience member to theatermaker. This feedback inspired a six-week pilot residency, led by Chaterji this past December/January. Read her process, challenges, and learnings from these six weeks below:
Into the Fire: Journey Across Pain with Incarcerated Women & Theater-Based Healing
It is dress rehearsal, the night before the performance at the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin, a prison that houses women, gender-nonconforming and transgender prisoners. I have been leading a class for eight weeks through California Shakespeare Theatre. Today is special: I have permission to use the gym to determine final blocking details. I am elated. Confident and enthusiastic, I march in with my students, only to discover that an aerobics class is under way. The officer on duty never received the memo about clearing the space for our class. The fitness instructor kindly surrenders the stage area to us, but the music still plays loudly from her boom box. After 10 minutes of yelling out instructions for a run-through of our show, I realize it is futile. Our energy is scattered and chaotic; I make the call to return to the chapel so we can focus. My voice is already hoarse.
I am accustomed to the clunky pace of prisons and jails – the bureaucracy, the levels of command, the security precautions that can be excessive to the point of absurd, the minute-by-minute monitoring of bodies, the lack of privacy, the censorship of political speech or anything that may be perceived as a threat. I have seen enough to be prepared for this minor setback, and still, frustration wells up inside me.
I am feeling the mounting pressure to meet my promise to the group and give them the chance to perform in front of a live audience. Simultaneously, I must meet the expectations of the invited guests who will be visiting the prison to see the performance, many of whom are professional theater artists. I want to showcase and amplify the talents of my students, as their work is also a reflection of my own. A lot is at stake, and I watch myself sacrifice some steps that are crucial in the emotional processing of the work, in favor of creating a performance-ready product. When people hear “theater,” they imagine being on stage. This act-hunger means that putting on a show takes precedence over the slower stages of recovery, self-love and acceptance. I’ll return to this dialectic, the strain between process and product, later in this post.
“What did s/he do? What’s s/he in for?” Doing Arts-in-Corrections, I frequently and dispassionately field this type of questioning. Taking a breath, I explain that the artists are imprisoned for a broad range of crimes, but that our performance explorations do not depend on the specificity of their offenses – rather that their personal histories are expansive and human, like any of us on the outside. I try to awaken an awareness about the imbalance between us – that I am not obligated to lay out the record of my sins, so to speak, while they have been branded by theirs. I call them “artists,” not inmates, criminals, convicts or felons. Incarceration is an aspect of their identities, but doesn’t hit the core of their self-knowledge. I am continually inspired by the level of skill and artistic intuition that I witness in these artists, human beings, sisters, brothers, neighbors to me.
Battling two hours of traffic, I arrive late on the first day. The group is waiting for me in an open, carpeted room in the chapel. There is a Bible study next door and a twelve-step program down the hall. I ask the group of all women what brings them here, and take notes for what they hope to get out of the experience:
Stephanie starts off, “Honestly, I’m coming here for therapy.” I see several women nodding with her.
“I want to try something different and get out of my comfort zone,” adds Yolanda.
“I’m shy and awkward. I think this will help so I can be more personable.”
“I used to do a lot of theatre in New York – I want to get back into acting!”
“This isn’t like anything else that’s offered here.”
“I just want to have fun! This can be a safe space to be silly and creative, which is the opposite of how we’re supposed to be, the rules of being an inmate.”
“I want to find my voice, to gain confidence, to be able to tell my story.”
I consider what they’ve shared and build my class flow in response. I notice the group is rigidly divided by friend-cliques, and one of my goals becomes to connect across these divisions. We slowly enter a juicy, creative zone that floats above concrete and steel walls. It takes a few sessions to find our rhythm and begin to think about ourselves as an “ensemble,” with interpersonal and spatial awareness, where we anticipate the artistic choices of our fellow actors, attuned to the group as a whole, one body that moves together.
It is a large group, 30 students in total. This is the maximum number I believe I can responsibly handle on my own, which is important because I know, in the federal prison system especially, there are limited opportunities for artistic or cultural growth. At my core, I am committed to making the arts accessible and relevant to those most impacted by systemic oppression. Art borne of struggle – grounded in my own struggle – is the fuel that keeps me moving. In the most sacred way, I know how pain can be translated into power, and that the performance, embodiment, and abstraction of it can both heal and catalyze wider social change.
I center the practice of empathy in my curriculum. I have found that theater presents a profound opportunity to recognize our common humanity, where I can reflect another’s life/truth/values through that of my own. As such, I am able to infuse the creative exercises with principles of restorative justice. To establish our group norms, I place colorful placards with the following concepts in different areas of the room:
Take responsibility – Build relationships – Respect all – Heal harm –
Everyone gets a turn to speak – Involve everyone affected
I invite the women to wander, consider each of them, and cluster around the one that resonates the most for a small group discussion. This is difficult, an uneasy task – everyone is a survivor (domestic violence, childhood neglect, drug addiction, rape, assault, police brutality) – and no one has experienced anything close to the dignity afforded by restorative justice, which is inherently healing-based, trauma-informed, peaceful. Human. Capable of recognizing humanity, which is something our criminal system is not designed to do.
I assert that this is our laboratory to envision the relational dynamics that we want, sharing also that I feel great urgency around providing alternative frameworks for women/girls directly impacted by criminalization. The contemporary RJ movement has prioritized the needs of men to heal from and account for socialized masculinity and violence. This is due to our dominant culture of male supremacy, and because the majority of incarcerated people in our society are male. There are troubling gaps. We have not adequately addressed the layers of harm in gender-based oppression against women and marginalized gender identities.
To this end, I assign a prompt: to write about the treatment of women in the criminal-legal system – the stuff that’s invisible to the mainstream, the hypocrisies, anything that feels important to tell. Annie comes back with a short script exposing two parallel structures: that of being in an abusive relationship, and that of being incarcerated. She explains that they are in fact echoes of the same power play, and that every time a correctional officer barks an order, it triggers a memory of intimate partner abuse in her past.
We develop a split-screen vignette featuring two simultaneous stories. Two women represent Annie – one before her incarceration, and one after. Their gestures and language are identical as they face each other, thus depicting the same human story and her throughline of trauma. It gives me goosebumps – the power, resilience, survivorship.
As predicted by the women themselves, the content is deemed too sensitive to present in front of the rest of the population. I explain that the piece is about the broad reach of post-traumatic stress disorder in a prison setting, generally. It doesn’t place blame on any individual C.O. But even after my advocacy and the generosity of the guard who is sponsoring us, who has taken time to listen and understand, we are told it is too dangerous. Susceptible to misinterpretation. The group is disappointed, but not surprised. I am motivated to revive the piece at some point in the future. Once the residency has gained more stability and prominence, I have faith we will be able to take more risks.
Building, Breaking, and Mending the Container
Three weeks in, Katherine announces that she has been granted parole. She will be leaving soon! The room erupts with cheer. I decide this is the perfect moment to introduce Playback Theatre, specifically what’s known as a “Fluid Sculpture” – an outward manifestation or externalization of another’s thoughts, dreams and worries. One woman steps in and pretends to be waiting for her brother-in-law, tapping her foot with anxiety and nervousness. Another woman enters the scene, making frantic phone calls to employers: “Yes, I can start tomorrow! Oh, have I been convicted of a felony? I can’t answer that…” Yet another woman offers a picture of resilience: bent in prayer, whispering self-affirmations.
All the components put together, the sculpture drips with love, optimism, and determination. It both reflects and honors Katherine’s needs for the future, and the assets already in her possession. In tears, we hold her.
We use sound and movement to warm up, always practicing improvisation as a way to unlock our inner child and channel our playful spirit. Joy is actually the backbone of the work, an undercurrent that bubbles up frequently and holds everything together. We go from shape and image to role, character, and story. We are immersed in the question of Self versus Society, breaking down labels, considering all the ways we are, identities, power.
The women ask for homework to be able to string the weekly classes more closely together. After warming up, I ask if anyone has a piece they’d like to read aloud. Writing can reveal forgotten aspects of ourselves, and the material that surfaces is what guided the next activity. I select exercises from Drama Therapy, Psychodrama and related forms, matching them to the content or theme, and am careful to periodically check the pulse and debrief. No matter how tender or traumatic, I always ask, “how was that for you?” and “how are you feeling now?” or “is there anything else you need us to know, or want to share?” It is essential to give participants the chance to speak about what they have just experienced, often the first time they have exposed a part of themselves, shining a light on something that sparks insight, closure, or a fresh sense of settledness. In verbalizing what they have gone through, they can tie the concepts together. Perspectives from the circle of witnesses can deepen the healing.
As we ramp up to the performance date, I am stressed out, anxious. I start to forget that the stories are still raw, the storytellers fragile. I rush into finalizing a section before the artist, herself, is ready to relinquish her story for directorial review.
This is a mistake. I hurt at least one woman, Tanya, by squeezing her into a piece that was aesthetically strong before she is strong, herself, in owning the story behind it. She is beginning to cross the threshold between being controlled by what happened and taking back control over the memory of it – but she isn’t there yet. I push her too fast, impatient with the tension between my “expertise” and the creative preferences of a “layperson” – an ironic distinction that betrays my bias.
I realize, later, what the problem is. I step outside of the caretaker role of teacher/facilitator holder of emotions and learnings – and into that of director, with the expectation that my actors will listen and follow. I do this too soon, and my shift in tone is jarring. One example is when I carelessly make the statement, “no, that’s not good.” I am thinking out-loud, a transparent verbal reflection of how I want to adjust or uplift the messages in her piece about addiction, and I hurt her tremendously. Whatever warmth we had previously felt for each other, the positive rapport we shared, disintegrated.
We have to stop and evaluate. I try to be humble, acknowledging the ways I may have derailed healing or caused additional pain. I also open up about my insecurities in staging a performance with so little time. We sink into a space of mutual vulnerability, and this helps smooth some of the cracks.
I learn a lot about myself and the limitations of Freirian pedagogy. As an educator, I am highly inclusive and collaborative, drawing on the knowledge of others to develop a shared vision of what we want to create – but ultimately, my assessment will clash with what looks good to other people. I have developed my own artistic sensibilities which I believe are superior – in composition, language, aesthetics – and that’s okay. Through this journey, I enter the role of director with fewer ethical or internal contradictions. The hierarchical arrangement does not need to be oppressive. I have found my bearings as a director, observing that a singular voice can be a beautiful thing, leading with compassion, patience, tolerance and respect.
Joining a Legacy of Sisterhood & Activism
One of three federal prisons for women in the U.S., FCI Dublin is located 23 miles southeast of Oakland on the way to the Central Valley. The current population is triple the number for which it was designed, with prisoners from around the country and several foreign nationals. It also functions as an immigration holding center, and houses a sizable number of immigrants who are awaiting removal proceedings.
Like many Bay Area organizers interested in prisoners’ rights and alternatives to criminalization, I have heard about Dublin through my movement elders. It exists in our collective activist memory as a legendary meeting point for intersectional resistance. In the 1980s, FCI Dublin was a hub for solidarity work with political prisoners in anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, Puerto Rican independence, queer liberation, and HIV prevention campaigns. There were many bridges between the incarcerated women and allies on the outside, including educators at the New College of San Francisco and at UC Berkeley’s Poetry for the People (founded by June Jordan).
I am conscious of my ability to enter and exit the prison each week. For me, my freedom and privilege come with a responsibility. I, too, see myself as a bridge between my community on the outside, my family, friends, the children I teach – and those who have been discarded, who society has given up on, the disposable ones. I bear witness to stories of immense grief and perseverance at Dublin, and this is, in fact, a transfer of knowledge from the prisoners to myself. I feel a duty to carry the message further, into the ripples and waves that extend beyond myself.
There is heaviness in this responsibility, and I am better able to lift it, hold it, when I see the history of this place. Those who have come before. I want to soak it all in. I ask more questions from the elders who fought hard for the release of their comrades, Assata Shakur among them. I have since sunk my teeth into the poems of Marilyn Buck, the anti-racist activist who got freed from Dublin just months before her death, whose words carry hope and dissent in describing much of the same circumstances we find in today’s realities of political repression.
Mirrors of Each Other
The night of the show, we are all jittery. I gather everyone in a huddle and remind them of the ways we’ve harnessed our strength, together, and how we have each others’ backs. I am absorbed into a culture of loyalty; it vibrates through the pre-performance panic. It has been a bumpy road, but we’ve glued together many of the broken fragments, and we are totally ready for this.
The audience begins to enter the gym – 200 prisoners from the facility, 10 outside guests. Before the warden arrives, we start with a “Pre-Show” – playful, lighthearted short-form improv to loosen everyone up, get them laughing.
The performance unfolds, a mixed lineup of monologue, Image and Tableaux, Playback Theatre, and poetry. We conclude with a piece of Forum Theatre from Augusto Boal’s tradition of Theatre of the Oppressed. Theatre of the Oppressed breaks the 4th wall that usually separates the audience from the actors. The philosophy is that everyone is an actor, everyone has a story, everyone has ideas for changing the world around us. Actors portray a worst-case scenario with a Protagonist with whom we can identify. After running it once, the audience members (who are now considered “spect-actors”) can clap and yell “freeze!” thus stopping the action in order to take the place of the Protagonist. They offer their own strategies for an alternative, liberatory outcome.
My original plan had been to translate Shakespeare’s Othello into this format, since the women have recently seen the play from Cal Shakes’ tour. But it becomes too complicated. We were able to present Mari’s story – entirely in Spanish – of her husband’s violence and manipulation, where he forced her to make the drug deal. He escaped; she was caught.
The circumstances are familiar to many, and each intervention brings a new twist. Humor and absurdity, and also the brazen possibilities of retroactive imagination – what could have happened differently, with the wisdom/foresight we have since acquired. It’s a delicate thing, to revisit the point in time when you made the wrong choice – too much damage and disempowerment blinding you to the better, smarter decision. Looking back, then, is also a declaration of how far we have come.
“It was cathartic. For my part, I had dealt with the issue, but it felt good to speak out loud. I hope it could help someone else who has gone through the same thing.”
“We bonded together. Tatiana helped me bring out things I didn’t know where there.”
“It was like a quilt: take a bunch of patches, sew it up, and it comes out this beautiful piece.”
“It was very emotional, touching, and real. Also therapeutic.”
Their words are humbling, and paint the picture that I helped them to shift or bring clarity. It’s more nuanced, of course. I received unnameable gifts from the group. Sometimes I express them; the gifts, the reasons for coming, the gestures and symbols that crystallize my dedication to working in these spaces – being truly seen and heard, the authenticity, the magic in creating art at the edges of humanity, the common threads of dehumanization-guilt-shame, spiritual logics of confronting violence head-on. I give credit to the collective wisdom among us, the ancestors looking down and pushing us forward, and our intrinsic capacity to love.
Note: names have been altered to maintain confidentiality.
Tatiana Chaterji is a restorative justice practitioner, youth organizer, artist and educator. She uses liberation arts to heal and activate young people and community members, particularly relating to the criminal system, structural violence, and historical trauma. She currently works as an RJ Coordinator within Oakland Unified School District, also leading circles and theater classes in Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center. A 2016 recipient of the Bay Area Inspire Awards, she guides workshops in arts-based leadership for a group of young women at the intersections of criminalization, social neglect, and commercial-sexual exploitation. She proudly facilitates a performance-based residency at the San Francisco County Jail with Community Works West. Tatiana is part of the team at Partners for Collaborative Change, offering trainings and coaching in equity/diversity/inclusion, and directs their ACTual Theatre of the Oppressed Troupe. She proudly supported in building curriculum as part of the 2015-17 Program Team of Essie Justice Group, an advocacy network of women with incarcerated loved ones. A Bengali-American with heritage across the border between India and Bangladesh, Tatiana works toward reconciliation between groups at multiple ends of harm. She conspires with political theatre collectives in her second/creative home of Kolkata, using theatre-based practices to explore the legacy of 1947 Partition, communal conflict, fractured socio-political memory, and meanings of self. In the Bay Area, she organizes “Beyond Partition,” a space for critical consciousness and healing for members of the South Asian diaspora.
Our residency at FCI Dublin is made possible by the generous support of the California Arts Council.