April 29, 2019
“What I would like to change most about the prison system is…the prison system,” says the voice, laughing a little. Repeated as part of Pamela Z’s effective and moving sound design for “The Wait Room,” this sentence puts a complex problem in a nutshell. Yet it could be that the solution to the problems associated with incarceration is simple — remove the profit motive. Start by stopping the price gouging — “what costs a dollar twenty-five out there, costs nine dollars inside”— that is one of the many problems faced by those trying to maintain relationships with incarcerated family members. Jo Kreiter, founder of Flyaway Productions, created “The Wait Room” in partnership with Essie Justice Group to turn her own experience as a “prison wife” (“I’m not married to the prison, I’m married to him”) into art. With her team of dancers —Sonsherée Giles, Bianca Cabrera, Clarissa Dyas, MaryStarr Hope, Lauren Elaine Ellis and Megan Lowe — Kreiter succeeds in creating an arresting kinetic metaphor for the experience of navigating a system that is unnecessarily cruel and inane.
The set, designed by Sean Riley, has a mobile clock face floor and a tower that the dancers climb and hook their aerial harnesses to. Dancers move from chairs to tower to the air, as the clock face tips like a tilt-a-whirl at an amusement park, expressing the feeling you might have if you are suddenly required to engage with a system with its own specific gravity. One of the most striking sections in the piece is about underwire bras. A woman’s voice tells us she is given a paper clip and told by a guard she must remove the wire in her bra in order to have her visit and she says, can’t I just take the bra off? That simple exchange resonates on so many levels — underwire bras that restrain women’s bodies (and are likely made by low wage workers), are treated as a concealed weapon; a problem is created, though a solution is simple and obvious; a tiny piece of metal is offered as ineffectual tool to remove a tiny piece of metal, and the consequence might be that two human beings are not allowed to have a moment of connection. Why should anyone have to use a tiny piece of metal to attempt to remove a tiny piece of metal in order to spend a tiny piece of time with someone important to them? Someone whose life is restricted and divided into tightly controlled hours and minutes that stretch on for years. “I love my son,” says another voice. “I feel that I have to say that.”
The Wait Room is showing May 17 and 18 outside the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond, then it moves to Ossining, New York, next to Sing Sing Prison. The show is outdoors and free, and is truly uplifting, if you’ll pardon the pun. You don’t have to have a family member inside to be aware that the prison system is sick. There is no more egregious example of shooting-fish-in-a-barrel capitalism in our society (though the systems we’ve created around health care and education probably come in a close second and third). Essie Justice Group, which partnered with Kreiter on The Wait Room, is working on building alternatives to our society’s habit of being a self-consuming machine. Essie offers training for women dealing with the system to become advocates for change. They are also working to reform the bail system through corporate divestment and legislative change and a current campaign to bail out mothers in prison in time for Mother’s Day. With The Wait Room and other efforts, Essie and Flyaway offer opportunities to turn trouble and pain into art and advocacy. I can’t imagine a more worthwhile endeavor.