first day at SF JJC

Thanks to a connection through one of our stellar Hamlet on Alcatraz volunteers, We Players is facilitating a workshop at the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center this spring. Once a week, for the next 7 weeks, I will have the privilege of listening to young peoples’ stories and their perspectives on the Alcatraz themes of justice, incarceration, isolation and redemption.  I will support four units of youth (~12-18 students per unit) in creating art that expresses their truths.  At the end of the term, Ava and I will work together with the youth for a solid week.  We will play with all the material they generate this spring and pull together a final piece/ pieces for presentation on Alcatraz during our June event and third gallery cycle.

This first Tuesday was all about introductions.  We Players protocol is to begin sessions with check in.  With new groups (and in non-We Players group settings) I like beginning with a thanksgiving address.  I asked every young person, each in their khaki pants and unit-specific colored t-shirt/sweatshirt, to share their name and something for which they’re feeling thankful. A few folks passed in most units, but otherwise, the responses were mostly “I’m thankful to be alive,” “for my family,” or “thankful I’m getting out soon.”   Not much originality, but most spoke their gratitude with conviction and I could see them all warming up a bit just having to think about that question.  What are you thankful for?

I explained I was with We Players, a site-specific performing arts group that transformed public spaces into realms of participatory theater.  I mentioned that We Players is really interested in helping people engage all their senses and expand their awareness of the history and energy of a space, more fully awakening to the magical world around them.  I described our partnership with the National Park Service and our three year aesthetic exploration of the Alcatraz themes.

I then did a rapid fire telling of Iphigenia and Other Daughters and Hamlet, while showing images of our productions on Alcatraz.  They were riveted. I noted the cycles of vengeance that perpetuated murder in both stories.  I presented Iphigenia’s questions about freedom at the end of Ellen McLaughlin’s play, and noted how her understanding and compassion and choice not to spill blood finally gave her brother peace. I returned to the cycle of vengeance with Hamlet, highlighting the major revenge themes on the play in my 10 minute summary. But I also emphasized Shakespeare’s focus on an internal dialogue, a man in isolation/ depression pulled in different directions by familial obligations and his own conscience.  After all the death, at the end of Hamlet (esp. as emphasized by We Players portrayal of Fortinbras’ arrival), we are asked to hear the bloody story and choose a new path.

We have some rights of memory in this kingdom, which now to claim our vantage doth invite us.”

These youth are  excited to share their voices, to express the truth of their lives and their experiences within our justice system.  And I’m excited to share their expressions with the ~5,000 visitors that tour Alcatraz every day.  I feel like our 2011 intention of connecting the Alcatraz themes with current realities is actually happening.

-Lauren Chavez