Piven Theater continues dialogue of mass incarceration through new play detailing experiences of incarcerated women


Source: Piven Theatre Workshop

Women in Cook County jail work with members of Piven Theatre Project. The weekly workshops allow the women to express themselves in an environment where such chances are rare.

Thea Showalter, Reporter

Gillian Hemme is not one to “skip her 9 a.m.’s” — especially on Tuesdays.

She wakes up as early as 5 a.m. to ensure she arrives on time at 8. Once she parks, she leaves her cell phone and computer in her locked car, knowing they’d never make it inside. Even so, it takes at least 30 minutes to get through security clearance at Cook County Jail, and another 30 minutes to gather the women from around the jail and bring them to the chapel, where her class is held.

Hemme, who is an education and community partnerships manager at Evanston-based Piven Theatre Workshop, leads a weekly acting class with inmates from the jail. Founded in 2014, the group, Ensemble Play in Cook County Jail, provides weekly workshops for female inmates as an escape from their daily lives.

“We wanted to do the thing that we do best, which is this Piven technique of improvisation, story theater and theater games because we’ve seen and experienced ourselves what a difference it makes,” Hemme said. “Whoever wants to be involved, we try to make space for.”

Given Piven’s work within the jail, it was a natural choice for Piven to produce “Hopelessly Devoted” for its 2018-2019 capstone project. It’s a play about the experience of women in prison.

“Hopelessly Devoted” tells the story of Chess, a woman facing a long prison sentence, separated from her children and isolated from other inmates. The play, written by Kate Tempest, is based on her experiences visiting a women’s jail in London, and runs from April 6 May 5.

“There’s an immense amount of pain around it,” said Linda Stevenson, a volunteer with EPIC. “When the women talk about their children, it’s very painful…how do you explain? How do you parent from a jail?”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, over 80 percent of incarcerated in Illinois women are mothers. Stevenson said many incarcerated women face emotional challenges when separated from their children and families.

Abby Pierce, director of “Hopelessly Devoted,” said that the Piven Theatre introduced the play through their workshops, where Cook County women performed it in class. She added that the women had a strong emotional response to the play, and felt it was very true to them.

“(‘Hopelessly Devoted’) really prompts a conversation around mass incarceration and the way we’re treating people in the prison and jail system,” Pierce said. “I think that’s probably the biggest success.”

Hemme said women in Cook County Jail are often awaiting trial, and some have been behind bars for years because they can’t afford to pay bail.

She added that the women felt they were in a constant state of “liminality,” an ambiguous terrain difficult for them to navigate emotionally and logistically. She said the women of EPIC supported one another and were one of the most generous audiences she said she had ever seen.

“We want to make sure that we’re equipping them with tools they can use to navigate that ambiguity a little bit better,” Hemme said, adding that Piven tried to ensure women were given an opportunity to be encouraged, supported and challenged in creative ways.

Jordan Coley spent over a year and a half in Cook County jail and had the opportunity to work with Piven in the time that she was there. Coley added that without Piven, she and other women would not have any other outlets for expression, opportunities which are few and far between for those who are incarcerated.

Coley said she felt as if she didn’t always know how to express herself vocally, but through Piven’s activities and plays, she learned to express herself and find a more artistic form of who she is.

“It was amazing, it was the best thing I think I’ve ever experienced…it made me feel liberated,” Coley said. “We played, we felt free — they literally gave me about two and a half hours of freedom.”

Hopelessly Devoted is showing at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston on April 6-May 5, and will be performed for women at Cook County Jail on April 30th.

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