This is a #ThrowbackThursday post detailing some of the theater-based healing work lead by Tatiana Chaterji as a Cal Shakes artist-investigator in 2017-2018.
Ana walks across the stage and pulls together the air in front of her. Gathers it, sculpts it. She presents her sacred object to the audience, cradled in her hands: This is my Celtic cross. It represents my geneology. I dedicate this performance to my ancestors. She places it on an imagined altar and exits as another woman begins her walk, creating her sacred object out of nothing. Here, in prison, where there is nothing – we build a beautiful, colorful shrine to healing and self-affirmation. We dig until water breaks from the aquifers of our imagination. Conjuring artifacts from our personal histories, we re-script our lives, theater as our life-source.
This is the eye of Fatimah. It signifies protection in the Muslim culture. I dedicate this performance to my sister Maryam.
This is my wedding ring. It symbolizes the 30 years of marriage and the love we shared before his death. I dedicate this performance to our happiness, our heart: our daughter.
This is my dreamcatcher. It symbolizes the strength of my people and my commitment to come home to them. I dedicate this performance to my friends.
These are my pearl earrings. They represent the love I have for my dear friend whose mother passed 3 years ago on this day. I dedicate this performance to her.
This is a map of Africa. It represents stolen greatness. I dedicate this performance to all the kings and queens.
This is my favorite precious stone labradorite, which has energetic and spiritual properties of clarity, intuition, and transformation. I’m wrapping it in gold wire. I dedicate this performance to my growth.
This is a purple lily. It symbolizes my daughter’s name in Japanese. I dedicate this performance to the new me.
This is a conch shell from the bottom of the ocean. Its spiral represents the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. I dedicate this performance to all beings.
And so we begin: a performance inside of the prison after a three-month series in restorative justice and theater. Together, we sat in circle; learned about indigenous methods of peacemaking; dreamed up alternative models of justice and accountability; shared stories from home; improvised these stories; retold the stories of others, reflected them as our own; flexed our empathy muscles; wrote group & solo poems; wrote letters to self, people we have injured, people who have injured us; excavated the wisdom we hold in our bodies; moved our bodies, de-mechanizing the way we move; tried on different and silly roles, laughed, acted a fool; shed a few tears along the way.
Through the class series, I guide the group in physical, mental, and spiritual exercises. I pull from the traditions of Theater of the Oppressed, Playback Theater, Verbatim Theater, Drama Therapy, and Psychodrama—using lessons from my formal training and artistic collaborations to develop a finely tailored curriculum for incarcerated women that aligns with the principles and process of victim-offender dialogue and related healing and accountability practices. The content is both introspective and analytical, an opportunity to look within and at society at large. We examine power, identity, and ultimately, the connection we have with ourselves, the people we have harmed, and those who have harmed us.
I assign writing prompts and other homework, review what the women return to me, and come back with collaborative pieces. I offer choreography and together we develop physical structures (movement, shape, sound, choral voice) to amplify the words.
This is my fourth time doing this, and each time I’m humbled by how the audience shows up to support, hold, and uplift the performers. Because this is participatory theater, a successful performance requires people to step onto the stage and offer themselves/their ideas to the group process. In the words of Augusto Boal, the founder of Theater of the Oppressed: spectators become spect-actors . The women at Dublin go beyond this expectation: they redefine what it means to break down the “fourth wall” that separates the audience from the actors. They applaud at moments of tenderness and joy. They don’t let awkwardness intrude, not even if someone forgets their line – instead, choosing to celebrate the bravery of the people on stage, honoring their vulnerability and openness. In RJ, we often speak of cycles of violence, using the adage “hurt people hurt people.” In this space, we set into motion the cycle of healing.
Sacred Words Are in Danger
Four women form a quadrant, shifting places so that the back left corner is where lines are delivered and the other three express image and shape. From the audience, we hear Sacred words are in danger followed by an inhale by the trio with their fingers extended in a “shhhh”. By the end of the tableau sequence, all four women’s arms are raised in a position of surrender. At the climax, they take turns speaking these words while simultaneously dropping their arms: Sing Them – Shout Them – Teach Them – Wear Them Around Your Neck, Amulets Against Amnesia.
The poem was written by Marilyn Buck, a prisoner who served her sentence at the same facility and whose memory is cherished by many in the room. She is part of a lineage of incarcerated artists, one link in a chain of ancestors to whom we can look for gorgeous and vivid and profound representations of imprisonment and freedom. Using her words is a deliberate choice for me – the only time that I pull from literature by people outside of the room. Otherwise, I am concerned with uplifting the immediate words from the immediate stories and souls present, here and now. This is a pedagogical approach from Popular Education, which centers our knowledge of the world as the expertise we need to generate ideas for change, and Ethnic Studies, which excavates narratives that exist outside of the dominant culture.
I see myself as a bridge—one of many bridges—between my community on the outside, my family, friends, the children I teach—and those who have been discarded, on whom society has given up, the disposable ones. As the prisoners transfer knowledge to me, my duty is to carry the message further, into ripples and waves that extend beyond myself. In the process, I have received innumerable gifts: being truly seen and heard, recognizing that being dehumanized and feeling guilt and shame is a universal tragedy, companionship in spiritual logic of confronting violence head-on. I give credit to the collective wisdom among us, our foremothers looking down and pushing us forward, and our intrinsic capacity to love.
Standing upstage, at the furthest point from the audience, Natalie reads from a letter: Dear Natalie. The other women echo her, with their own names: Dear Amelia, Dear Breeana, Dear Kat.
You are loved. You are deserving of all good things. A woman walks across the stage to the altar, picks up an imaginary lighter and lights an imaginary candle. Picks it up.
You are worthy to receive positive displays of discipline and encouragement. You are beautiful just the way you are. You are unique: there is and always will be only you as you. You are special.
Shielding the flame with her hand, she walks down the aisle and through the audience, slow and deliberate steps, a moving meditation, until she meets another woman’s eyes.
Don’t forget, young self, to hold onto your desire to experience, explore, and learn. Allow yourself, yourself as essence and connection to the divine.
She gifts the candle to her, letting it pass from her hands into those of the woman sitting in the audience.
I want to tell you to conform to what society wants, only because it will make things easier. But I won’t tell you that. Be vulnerable and dare to be ridiculous and illogical.
Another woman has crossed the stage and now is approaching the altar. She uses an imaginary book of matches to light her candle.
I fear for you. I am afraid of seeing your hopes and dreams beaten out of you by your authoritarian father and apathetic mother. Another woman reaches the altar and lights two tea candles with an imaginary torch.
I want to tell you not to build a wall around your heart, but I know it will make you feel a little safer. But, dear one, this is an illusion.
There is now a slow stream of women making their way through the audience to share and spread the light.
You are a bright spark hiding under a blanket of despair and layers of pain that will build that wall. I want to tell you that the wall, that illusionary wall, will only cut you off from the source of the Truth.
Like a raging fire of love and healing, the room is warm. Nikki’s voice is steady, an alto of tenderness and strength. She grounds us.
I want to tell you that we, all of us here, in this place are of the same light. We are interconnected. The wall will divide you, but will not conquer your hurt and fear.
On this winter evening before the solstice, it is almost as if we can see the glow of a dozen candles.
I want to tell you that you are forever held and cherished and loved by the connection to all. Don’t ever stop learning and believing, younger self. Hold onto the truth you know in your heart.
It is important that we began and ended our show in ritual. We prepared by naming our needs before the performance: patience, support, great energy, understanding, positive vibes. In the chapel for dress rehearsal, Sandra calmed our nerves: “We’ll pray, give it over to God. He’s with us and has faith in all of us. We’re in His sanctuary after all.”
We end earlier than expected, with twenty minutes to kill before we can leave (according to the strict schedule at the prison). At first I panic, worried about how I’m going to pass the time. But I needn’t have worried: Lisa has the idea to invite people in the audience to add to our altar. By this point, people are comfortable and relaxed. Several women who had performed earlier in the year were present, and Radhika suggests that we do a “liquid sculpture.” She is leaving in a couple weeks, along with a few others—and I take this cue to gift them a creative send-off. I ask the group to compile a sculpture of prayer, inspiration, and encouragement.
The first woman steps on stage, pointing sternly: “Don’t you dare come back here!” Another woman joins her and reunites with her children: “I’ll never leave you again.” One by one, the messages converge in a clump of love and validation. When there is a pause and it feels complete, I instruct everyone to pull out their polaroid camera – miming as I speak—and take a snapshot to carry with them as they leave, a reminder that we believe in them and they can do it.
The mirror sees everything that is hidden from the naked eye / beyond what others see / through to the spirit-world
The mirror sees my weakness, it sees my sins, it sees my pain / the pain I hold everyday / the pain I hold behind these eyes
The mirror sees the scream trying to escape
It sees the beast inside trying to claw its way out / to shed blood on those who have done me harm / to finally seek the vengeance that is owed / to rightfully stamp “PAID” on a debt that is long overdue.
The mirror sees the tattered black burnt wings that hang upon my back / the scars on my face / the wounds on my body from battle, from war / my body against the demons I have fought
The mirror sees everything I do not allow others to see for their own safety and well-being all the darkness I hold inside / all the hurt / all the / all the sorrow
What the mirror does not see: innocence / innocence that was left behind / left behind so long ago
The mirror does not see a loving mother who has turned out just like her father, leaving her child behind / the beautiful intelligent person this woman once was / who now feels like an empty shell
The mirror does not see the potential and ambition to take the kid and start over, anew / a hidden reservoir of renewed strength
Her son is the guardian of it: she only has to find her way back to him
She only has to fight one last battle to win that strength and faith
The mirror does not see / Does not know that the old mirror will be broken
And a new one will take its place
And if she smiles – once in awhile – it might actually reach her eyes so that they light up again
A chance to not be broken anymore / To begin again / To heal
Tatiana Chaterji is a restorative justice practitioner, liberation arts educator and storyteller working across the borders of incarceration, intergenerational trauma and structural violence. A frequent speaker on victims’ advocacy, reconciliation, and alternatives to the criminalization of wrongdoing, she has initiated several programs at correctional facilities and re-entry, integrating the arts with healing and victim-offender dialogue. She learned theater in the movement and on the streets of her community, inspired by rich traditions of Bengali cultural resistance. She trains with performance collectives in Kolkata, and agitates through Theatre of the Oppressed, youth leadership, and guerilla arts interventions for social change.