Letter to Ancestor Highlights

Going through the JJC students’ letters to ancestors with a fine toothed comb.… I find gems that sparkle with hope, yet even more dark rocks of truth, crumbling from our current realities.

Selections will be printed and all original letters will be presented in We Players third exhibition on Alcatraz, opening June 11th.

If you’d like to be involved with our July 23rd Youth Conference, please contact us!

Dear Ancestor,

Would you rather live in my time or your time if you had a choice?

How did you guys survive through wars, riots, crises and depressions? I am only 16 and I’ve been through a lot. I have a daughter and I’ve been shot. The one think that keeps me motivated is my mother.
– A

In the times that we are living in now it is worse than everything you went through. Young black people are dying everyday. We come from a community where there is no unity. I would rather walk in the shoes you walked in to replace all the tragic memories I suffer from seeing all my family and close friends die.

Being whipped by a Caucasian slave master wouldn’t hurt me as much as being shot by a brother of the same age and same color.

So many people are very heartless where I come from. I wonder if it was the same when you were growing up.

I know you worked hard in your days because my family works hard now.

How many kids did you have or did you have kids? What did they get in trouble for and what were the consequences? Because I got beat with a belt.
– Don

There is so much technology in our society today that people believe it will destroy the human population and the world will soon come to an end. Our nation has been at war for so long that I believe there is truth to some of it.

Life in here is nothing compared to real jail, so I’m fortunate. But there is nothing funny about not having your freedom and getting told what to do.
– Amarion

I was doing good, following all the rules. I had some rough times, but I always managed to pull it together. Then I made one mistake by going to a place I had no business going to. Now that place has me wearing a green sweater and khaki pants again, county underwear, socks that millions of people had on. Who am I really? Why was I put on this earth to go through this struggle?
– Jamariea

Most of the family are living in housing projects and struggling to find a job. Most of the young ones in the family are getting caught up with the law. How do we stop this and move on to a better life?
– Thomas

I’m not in the best position today because I’m incarcerated. But I won’t let our family’s hardwork be in vain.
– Jon

I’ll see you in maybe 30 years.
– Anonymous

Ancestor, you would be mad at us because of the way we act. And the way we’re killing our own people. We’re going to jail and you fought for us to be free. You fought for us to get an education. Now people our age don’t go to school. We don’t do anything our ancestors fought for.

A lot of people have lost that family unity. People don’t respect their elders.
– DeNeal

I’m not going to do anything but be dead or in jail. At least that’s what the judge says. But when I get to this group home I’m going to prove her wrong.

The system is not cool. Once you’re in they don’t want to let you out and they are always trying to send me off, so I guess they don’t want to see me do anything good with myself.
– Zaybang

My grandfather told me, “time waits for no man, man just wasts time or uses it best as he can. Life goes on without a meaning or a purpose, but if you life it, then when the time comes to die, you’ll know that it was worth it.”
– Joshua

Even though we have freedom and rights, we are still going through hard times. I feel that we aren’t really free. And it drives me crazy.
– Lamont

Here in America there are barely any African Americans who know their native background. Everything here is usually technology-based, cutting out traditional things like cooking, reading, hunting, etc. Our people are sometimes discriminated against due to stereotypes and certain people who have done stupid things in the past. Today they have systems that can take away your freedom and rights no matter what age you are. I am currently in Juvenile Hall, which means I have no freedom or rights.
– S.M.

Today there are more youth dying because of what neighborhood they stay in, or because of the people they know. Today there are a lot more gangs because teenagers don’t have anyone to look up to.
– Diamonique

First off, I would like to apologize for disgracing your family name. I realize that I am the first and only person in our bloodline that has been incarcerated, but I vow to make it up to you and make you proud of me.

The world is a mess right now. Maybe it always was? Maybe it’s just more obvious now?
– Ashton

I remember I used to love.
I’m not that person anymore.
Reality has changed me.
– Carey

People think that my life is going good, but it’s not. People nowadays judge you for all you got, how you look, and what you wear.
– Shakari

Orange Blossoms

Thank you Evan Bissell for leading a wonderful workshop on Alcatraz this past Saturday, June 4th!

Despite the rain, an intimate group of participants gathered at Pier 33 to ride the ferry through the gray day to Alcatraz. The scent of our oranges, which we used in awareness and drawing exercises, lifted the cold weight of the prison walls with the burst of imagined earth and scented blossoms. We wrote letters to our ancestors, some specific, some vague and imagined, to capture a slice of the present moment in time and perhaps connect with our sense of self in the great stream of time. This workshop was the same starting point Evan used when developing the portraits with the men and youth featured in the artworks displayed in the most recent exhibit on Alcatraz.

We Players borrowed this same exercise during our workshop at the SF Juvenile Justice Center. Masks and letters to ancestors that grew out of the weeks with the youth at the JJC will be featured in our next exhibit on the Rock. We are excited to host a Youth Conference on July 23 and are inviting teens and young adults from a wide array of backgrounds to join us that Saturday afternoon! If you know someone, or group of teens, who may be interested in a unique trip to Alcatraz, please contact us!

Thanks, friends!

Biographies for Alcatraz Restorative Justice Panel Discussion

We Players is honored to facilitate discussion on the transformation of identity, restorative justice, and the methodology of state produced inmate portraiture are the primary themes for the exhibition on Alcatraz this Saturday.  Bios for our participating artists and practitioners of interpretation and restorative justice are below.  We extend our thanks for their talent and dedication to justice and forgiveness.

Reservations are filled for our exhibition opening event this Saturday, but our experience with offering free reservations is that there is usually space for at least a hand full of wait list admissions.  If you’d really like to join us and haven’t yet made your reservation, just arrive at Pier 33 between 12:30-12:45, follow the We Players signs to our reservations table, and add your name to the waiting list.

Sujatha Baliga

Sujatha’s work is characterized by an equal dedication to victims and persons accused of crime.  Sujatha earned her A.B. from Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges and her J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.  She has held federal clerkships with the Honorable William K. Sessions, III, Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and with the Honorable Martha Vázquez. Sujatha has served as a consultant to the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, and taught Restorative Justice at New College School of Law and at the California Institute for Integral Studies. In 2008, Sujatha was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship, which she used to spearhead a successful restorative juvenile diversion program in Alameda County.

She is the Director of Community Works’ newest initiative, Community Justice Works, where she continues to implement and expand the restorative juvenile diversion program she began through her Soros Fellowship.  Sujatha is also the Founder and Executive Director of The Paragate Project, an organization dedicated to exploring forgiveness. An emerging national voice in restorative justice, she was recently honored as Northeastern University Law School’s Daynard Fellow.  Sujatha’s personal and research interests include victims’ voices in restorative practices, the forgiveness of seemingly unforgivable acts, and Tibetan notions of justice.

Evan Bissell

Evan Bissell is a Bay Area artist and educator whose work is a project-based practice of creating structures of collaborative dialogue and expressions of personal and community truths. Working with groups of people, Bissell facilitates educational, auto-ethnographic and contemplative processes of interviews, research, listening, writing and art-making.  In the last five years he has created and publicly installed over 50 original paintings and murals with Bay Area residents on themes ranging from love, to education to incarceration.  He has had solo exhibitions at SOMArts Cultural Center, Intersection for the Arts and Marcus Books, and created the original set for the play Mirrors in Every Corner. Evan currently teaches art at El Cerrito High School in the Teen Alive program – combining art with critical group discussion on masculinity and violence.

Jim Breeden

Jim Breeden has been an Interpreter on Alcatraz for nearly three years. He has done groundbreaking research in what is described as Alcatraz’s first escape attempt, recasting the event in an entirely different light. He is currently preparing for a future display on Alcatraz, which involves comparing Alcatraz to modern American prisons and illuminating alternative approaches to incarceration such as restorative justice.

Monica Lundy

Born in Portland, Oregon in 1974, Monica Lundy spent her childhood between Oregon, California and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. She received a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996. In 2001 she moved to Florence, Italy, where she studied painting independently under the mentorship of Jules Maidoff, founder of Studio Art Centers International.  Monica received a MFA from Mills College in 2010 and was also a recipient of the 2010 Jay DeFeo Award in painting and sculpture.  She currently lives and works in Oakland, California.

Hamlet on Alcatraz Outreach

Anna Martine Whitehead and the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department

While We Players rehearsed Hamlet over the demanding Alcatraz terrain, new and returning artists at the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department spent Summer 2010 building giant puppets and banners that address Hamlet’s themes – including isolation, redemption, and loss. Over the course of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet finds himself more and more alone within a court of panderers, backstabbers, adulterers, and murderers. He struggles with the moral question of how to avenge his father’s death, increasingly aware of the cycle of violence and limitations of reason. He becomes morose, and in the process loses not only his father, but his mother, a sense of family,  his love, and ultimately his own life.

These same themes of loss, isolation, and redemption are felt keenly by the 260,000 people incarcerated in California jails and prisons, and the over 446,000 California residents on probation, parole, or supervision. Setting the trend for the nation, incarceration has become an epidemic in California.

The artists who designed the work here are all on probation, parole, or supervision and a few have served time at San Quentin State Prison, directly across the Bay. They have experienced the loss of friends, family, childhood, social standing or a sense of self to violence, drugs, AIDS, and incarceration.

For those who repeatedly showed up to make artwork, several times a week for over twelve weeks, the manipulation of raw material into identifiable images of salvation and remembrance (ghosts, fists raised in the air, and crosses, among other things) was a critical step in their ongoing process of redemption and self-forgiveness. Their lived experience of these themes, as well as their commitment to the art of personal expression, informed We Players’ generative process.


Franky Alfaro
John F. Earle
James L. Ellis II
Michael Goodwin
LeRoy Hoggis
Alma Johnson
Allen, Alex, Alberto (Cuba), Mike, Oliver and Richard

Banner artists:

Lejhaun Bowden
Daniel Chesnutt
Darinell Collier
Rashawna Dixon
Mariana Duran
Lacresha Foster
Celina Gallardo
Trina Glover
Vinh Hoang
Pamela Watson
Shaun Webb
Keith Williams
Marcella M. Wiltz
Cornell, and Semaj (Doh)

Location: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco
Dates: January 29 – April 2, 2011 

Anna Martine Whitehead Artist Statement
I use video, puppets, sound, and movement to address disremembered histories. My history-telling performances are an extension of my investment in transformative performance traditions, my commitment to disidentificatory countermemory, and my penchant for retelling trauma as fantasy. I uncover the buried histories of space and identity formation to tell new stories of self-actualization. Working within thematic discourses of diaspora, memory, melancholia, and desire, my practice narrativizes those invisible and unwritten moments where hybrid identities and collective knowledges meet.

Fair Winds

Dear Friends,

Since you are here reading this post, THANK YOU for visiting We Players’ new website. I’m excited to provide more regular updates about our work and play, and to invite your participation with this new web-interface.

On this occasion, I’d like to tell you a little story. Okay? It’s short, but have a cup of tea and sit with me for a few. In November of 2008 I visited Alcatraz for the first time. Now, nearly three years later, I feel like pieces of the island are embedded in me, and I know we have left our own quiet trails throughout the island’s disparate terrain. Prior to the big adventure on Alcatraz – I went to sea. First crewing on a 36′ Tartan sloop, the “Wild Rose” with a wonderful female captain, and somewhere in southern Mexico switched ships to a 38′ Yorktown called “Fandango”. The captain, myself and Fandango crossed 3400 nautical miles to reach the verdant green shores of Hilo, Hawaii. There I bathed in fresh, sweet water for the first time in weeks and feasted on fruit after the extended lapse sans fresh food. Astounding really, how absence not only makes the heart grow fonder, but more appreciative and able to taste and savor familiar things as completely new. Something to consider in my art making I believe – how to keep the work alive, breathing, fresh, constantly growing and changing. Not to settle into patterns or old tricks, but continually find new flavors and hues. Upon returning to California, I found that the sea had helped me drop into a deep space of quiet and focus, which has supported me through these challenging two years on Alcatraz.


Up until this island, this Rock, this series of performances and outreach projects, We Players has been somewhat sporadic. Well, that’s not quite it. But the company has had to trail in the wake of a gypsy wandering leader. Each of my adventure travels has served the work in some way – providing inspiration for an upcoming project, or just quieting my soul so that I could rise to the task of creating monumental productions with very little resources. Still, 2010 marked both the 10 year celebration of being on this path and was also something of a test for me. Does the world want this work? Shall I continue striving to create these productions? Will I be able to better support myself and my collaborators through the work? Will we become financially more solvent? Do people want to play with We Players? Shall I take not only the next step…but a flying leap into a new decade?

The response to Hamlet on Alcatraz, and the personal progress I felt throughout the creation of that show, gave me a resounding YES. And so – welcome to We Players second decade. There are no bounds – only the expansive, ever extending horizon where the sea’s lips kiss the sky’s cheek.

Thank you for sailing along with WE.


Oh, and postscript: None of this would exist if it were not for ALL of WE. All of you who come to experience the work and boldly join us on the performance journey. All of you who have worked with me, have given so much of your time, your talent, your spirits to manifest each collosal creation. Donald, Elissa, and Brandon, who I will unabashedly admit are my bedrock and my heart’s greatest loves. And Lauren Dietrich Chavez, without whom WE would not be rising on such strong and peaceful wings. I am honored to hold your hand and walk with you, Lauren.

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

Night on The Rock

sleepless sleepover on the rock

like kids all night exploration
rubble piles, roof tops, skeleton architecture against the sky
open spaces sprawling and closed trapped corners
envisioning stunts, fights, flight
shifting and opening souls
the power of the game of “yes”, you who know the one, and in the cell house at that.
fire circle – ritual of building our first prayer bundle
without a forced sense of solemnity,
the power presents itself with ease

but my lungs crushed in the cell at 5am
when i tried to lie down and rest
finding i can navigate the weight of space when i’m in motion
working, engaging, activating

but to be still.
to sit with it
just sit and be still with it ?

i physically can not breathe.
escaped to sunrise vista
and an hour of sleep outside under the lighthouse

stone holds memory.