Not Your Mother’s Theater: Rhodessa Jones and the Medea Project
Since its creation by Rhodessa Jones in the late 1980s, the simple yet profound aim of the Medea Project has been to enable incarcerated women to articulate and perform their experiences of trauma; more recently, the Medea Project has expanded its focus to include women diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Even as it has evolved over the decades and expanded into other countries, at its core the process has operated under Jones’ conviction that, in order to approach lasting wellness, women must find a way to tell their stories. Drawing on an array of fictional women’s stories from ancient Greco-Roman and contemporary African and American mythologies, Jones requires the Medea Project participants to develop their own voices in connection to the mythological ones, and then to share those voices in performance.
Nearly 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greek playwright Euripides dramatized the infamous tale of Medea, a woman who murdered her own children to punish their father for betraying her. She radically claimed, “Of all beings that breathe and feel, we women are the most unfortunate,” and so fittingly lends her name to Jones’ powerful and provocative work that sits at the intersections of art, gender, and social justice.
I’ve had the privilege of working regularly with Jones and the women of the Medea Project as their Greek and Roman mythology consultant since January 2016; in that time, I’ve become more a member of the company than its advisor. As Jones begins to tour her new one-woman show Rhodessa! Fully Awake & Facing Seventy: Heaven Betta Bea Honky Tonk!, which explores the riches of her life experiences, I’ve spoken with her about the genesis, evolution, and staying power of the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women/HIV Circle.
— Alexandra Pappas
Alexandra Pappas: I think it might be a good place to start — just for those who might not know the genesis — how was the Medea Project born? When and why?
Rhodessa Jones: Oh my god. The Medea Project is almost forty years old… In my family you were either an artist or you were a math person. I was an artist for the California Arts Council, which was a large advocacy organization in Sacramento, whose members included Ruth Asawa and Peter Coyote. And my family was doing all this children’s theater but really rooted in history; we called ourselves the Jones Company in those days (Bill [T. Jones] and his partner Arnie [Zane] were involved for almost two years, before they went back to New York). We started doing outdoor performances around the city, and were invited to the Art Institute, to perform Storm over Rhodesia: An Exorcism, which was all about Zimbabwe and what was happening with Steve Biko and apartheid. And then in 1986 I got a call from a neighborhood arts program asking me if I would go into the jails and teach aerobics to incarcerated women. Jane Fonda had just come out with her brand, which made aerobics very popular. People in my dance company — I was also dancing with Tumbleweed — had started training with Jane Fonda and got into making money along with the glamour and all that. Aerobics was everywhere.
AP: It was an industry.
RJ: Yes, oh my god yes, and Jane Fonda killed in the beginning with her version of aerobics! So I was asked to go into the jails and teach aerobics and I’m like, okay, jail. Jail’s kind of interesting. Aerobics, not so much.
AP: What interested you about jail?
RJ: I knew something about men being in jail. My brother Richard had been on the chain gang since he was like sixteen, seventeen years old. He was one of my favorite brothers. My father lost two of his uncles to that system: these men would just get picked up, and because the state had to build roads, or cut through a forest, or build a government building, these Black men basically would be charged with these crimes, they would be thrown in jail for years and they would become the chain gang crew. So these were the stories — Sam Cooke, [sings] “That’s the sound of the men.” But I had no idea about women in jail. I mean, I have some wild cousins and my sister was in jail for pretty heavy-duty crime but I didn’t realize the urban blight that was around the lives of African American and Latino women. And I thought, “Okay, I’ll teach aerobics.” I was very curious, and I also saw myself as a womanist, more so than a feminist.
AP: Can you explain the distinction that you saw at the time?
RJ: A womanist I feel like just simply identifies with women. All women bleed, there are struggles we can identify with each other. This was about women healing, women creating another world for us; we are a class, we are a social group if nothing else.
So I went into the jails, I took my womanism ideas with me, and it worked. I didn’t know enough to be judgmental, you know, I was just glad that it wasn’t me, I was glad that I wasn’t the woman who was hung up in addiction, or just angry — women were so mad. I would show up with my little beatbox and my bag of shorts so we could play, but they couldn’t get a rise out of me. Except for one woman; she decided that I was just lame and she assumed that I was educated. “You talk all proper, you ain’t been so and so and so.” All the other women were watching: Rite of passage, like, what’s she going to do? And the deputies were watching too. And I got mad, just like, how dare you come in here and disturb my class? But I thought, well, I’m going to just let this woman play this out. She started jump shooting and all the women were saying “Why don’t you stop, you’re being disrespectful, Miss Jones has asked you to stop.” She wouldn’t. She was waiting for me to get in her face. The little goblin on my shoulder said, “Okay, what you gonna do?” ’Cause there’s a goblin and an angel, right? And I thought well, this is it, because if I don’t do it, I’m going to lose all these people. So I just stepped up and snatched the ball.
And I said, “You know what? If you don’t sit down I’m going to have to kick your ass.” I looked at all them and I said, “I’ve had a full night’s sleep, I’ve eaten a really good meal, I’m not coming down off of any kind of drug and I will fucking kick your ass. And check this, they pay me to be here. I can go home at noon.” And the women were like, “Ooh, Miss Jones gave you shade.” They were all high-fiving and I was like [heavy breathing] and the deputies get on the mic and they said, “Well, Jones, you okay?” And I said, “I’ve got this, I’m fine.” And the girl was nearly in tears. She was like, “You know you’re a jive-ass Black girl,” and I said, “Whatever, but you know what? This jive-ass girl ain’t in jail and they’re paying me to be here to deal with this group, you included, so we’re going to get on with the work, or I’m going to have to ask these deputies to take you back to the dorm.”
And all of a sudden, I was getting a picture of like, what have you stepped into? Every day was a different scenario. I knew that all eyes were on me, so I would dress like the girl on Solid Gold. I got extensions down my back, and I was wearing unitards and at the same time I was forty-two, forty-three years old.
AP: So this was performative for you, as an instructor, as an artist?
RJ: It was all sound and movement and putting yourself at the center of the story and knowing that it’s totally unorthodox, but how do you get these peoples’ attention? Once you have their attention you damn well better have something to say. At that time I was so strong. In Tumbleweed we did handstands, cartwheels, we did aerial theater, And I would talk about all of this and they were just fascinated; it was a total trip of just finding my way. It was like a cross between a drill-sergeant, a gangster, a sister, and I started to feel this. Oh my god. I would just roar at people. I’d cuss ’em out and everything. But nobody had blown them away and then said, “Okay, okay, come on let’s group hug,” or whatever. It was teaching me: what did an artist do with incarcerated women?
I met Regina Brown, who was the centerpiece of my solo show Big Butt Girls, Hardheaded Women, and who later died. I had never met such a lioness in my life. She was a person who asked me, when I’m doing my cartwheels and handstands and walkovers, “Why you telling us your business?” And of course you’ve gotta be ready for the question. I said, “Well, because I’m interested in building bridges, with language, with movement, bridges that are going to take us all out of here and back home.” And she said, “Well, are you the police?” And I said, “No I’m an artist.” And then she said, “What’s that?” with total innocence. I’m still trying to answer it.
AP: You found your way into the palliative power of women’s voices being expressed and performed. I’m wondering if finding that way was primarily intuitive, by trial and error, or if you were also methodologically, theoretically informed. In the ’70s, I’m thinking of work like Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Was that kind of work informing you at the time?
RJ: Not yet. I was really homegrown. There was something I understood about manners and about pride. My mother wasn’t having it any other way. You couldn’t slouch, you know, and I brought all of that to bear in the jail. I demanded things of them. I would cry with them. I was telling the people in the jail about my friend losing her baby, her son, who was like seventeen, eighteen. And this girl said, “Well that ain’t nothing.” They would always say that. “So-and-so was killed this summer,” and “That was my cousin,” and I’m like looking at them and I want to cry for my friend Joyce but I’m looking at these women and I just start crying. And they all moved in and they said, “Miss Jones, why are you crying?” I said, “Because it’s very sad, what we’ve been through.” And they said, “Why are you crying for us? We just convicts.” And that made me cry some more. “Why are you crying for us?” I said, “Why shouldn’t I cry for you? We’re all mothers and sisters and daughters and lovers and aunts and cousins and we got all these painful stories about loss.” People had tears running down their faces. This was before I knew [social worker] Sean Reynolds, she was the one who said, “you know, well, we gonna cry cause there’s nothing else to do. We’re gonna have to stop crying and we’ve got to decide what we’re going to do.” And that was the piece I hadn’t gotten yet.
I said “Let’s just make a circle. And we’re just going to sit and we’re going to send up prayers for the people that we love and send up their souls. And if you feel like it, just throw something in the circle.” And people started talking to the dead. And the jailers were like, “What is so quiet down there?”
But, to answer your question, I didn’t have a methodology yet. Politically, I was still forming; Tumbleweed was very much a women’s dance company and we talked about sisterhood being good and we talked about the trials and tribulations of being a female. Whenever there was a political quandary in the paper that would become part of our improvisational stuff, talking about what was going on in the world.
AP: Your voice, the sonic experience of Rhodessa Jones, is really distinctive. It seems like one of the ways you communicate your power is not just the content of your words. It’s also the pitch, the cadence, the register of your voice, the way you modulate. Actually this reminds me of one time, I think it was during check-in at the Medea Project, and you were just saying how your day was, how things were going and you leaned in with a dramatic pause, and everyone was quiet listening, and you pounded your fist on the table and you said, “I am a powerful motherfucker.”
RJ: [laughs] Well, first of all, culturally, we were migrant workers, who moved from the South to upstate New York. My mother, even my sister, my oldest sister, Janie, who died, she taught us all to read. My mother would be working the fields, so we would sit and read. She would have us learn the alphabet, and my mother was adamant about placing your words. She said, “Don’t be lazy. Don’t be lazy and don’t sound stupid.”
“Place your words,” and then we started migrating to the north, she said, “You know, you go into those schools, you’ve gotta be twice as good as the white kids. You’ve gotta be twice as good.”
Because we were Southerners, we spoke with much more of a lilt, this kind of, “Ah, mhm, yeah.” And you could get teased, so we stepped it up a bit. And in a country school that was theater, that was chorus, that was debate. And this was like, Wayland Central School, when we had every class that there was. I read all of Catcher in the Rye. Who knew? Catcher in the Rye not to mention Laura Ingalls Wilder’s collection, the Brontë sisters. This was the stuff we were reading in a country school. And then my brother Azel was finding Henry Miller and he’d show us all the juicy parts. But the language, you know, we did read a lot out loud; for Easter, we were up in this country house, so we’d have to do our own programming. An Easter program, a Christmas program. So you’d have to learn a poem, you’d have to learn something from the Bible. My mother had left school at like fourth grade; it was so important to her that we stood up straight and that we spoke very well. And also she just had that longing sometimes in her eyes that we could just pick up anything and read it. I think that all played into it. And then, fast forward, somebody asked me to direct Waiting for Godot. It was another company that I had formed called Local Color. And it was all women’s theater. So they had asked me, “Rhodessa, would you direct?” I guess because I’m a bad motherfucker. [laughs]
AP: Powerful motherfucker.
AP: And bad.
RJ: We changed the title. Waiting for Godette or Bound for Jail, with All Apologies to Samuel Beckett. We were white girls and Black girls. I had three different girls who played the child. And we decided we were on a city bus, we changed bits of the language and we drank, we really drank Jack Daniels in the show. I played Pozzo, and my sister-in-law Eileen Healey was Lucky. Pozzo gave me this forum to speak loudly and demand everything and be in charge. And later in my life I just took it into banks, when I might need something cashed, when I’m talking to my students anywhere, when I’m the only Black person, all these things, and then the Medea Project. Not the Medea Project, but working with incarcerated women, because they would also stop and look at me. And this was early days.
AP: And so in those moments when you would assert yourself that way did it feel like a persona, did it feel like going back to that character or had it become an aspect of Rhodessa?
RJ: I just knew it was a way to stop the room. I had this doctor, she went on to be a television doctor, Dr. Gwendolyn somebody, a white lady. She was the first person that was telling me, “Oh my goodness, you speak so well.” And I hadn’t thought about it. This is race and culture and it’s like, “Yeah.” I saw that just opening your mouth you can change the world.
I had a group of young activist artists who worked with me in the early days and it was Nikki Byrd who said, “Rhodessa, you know, what we’ve done is that we have given them their voice. We have given them the right to speak. We expect them to speak.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s what this is about.” These were young women who would follow me anywhere. The other side of that is that they don’t like me. First they are totally in love with me and then not. [laughs]
AP: I want to ask you about the newer arm of the Medea Project that’s now called HIV Circle. In describing the Medea Project’s early focus on incarcerated women and not women with HIV/AIDS, Sarah Warner who worked with you, and is also a comparative literature and feminism scholar, described that incarcerated-oriented work, as an “activist aesthetic grounded in revisionist mythology.”
RJ: Interesting. [laughs]
AP: How and when and why did this myth-oriented activist aesthetic expand into HIV Circle? A follow-up to that is how would you articulate how you see women’s incarceration and women’s health interconnecting?
RJ: First of all, Eddy threw me the gauntlet — Dr. Eddy, Dr. Edward Machtinger. The Medea Project was already twenty-five years old or something when he said, “I challenge you to take this group of women from my clinic, and using the same methodology, get them to tell their story. Because until they tell their story, they’re not going to get well, they’re not going to be able to take their medicines, they’re not going to be able to stand in a lot of ways. They can’t talk to their children about what’s going on.” He said, “It’s amazing what you’ve been able to do in getting women to stand up and say, ‘I did this, I did that.’”
But I want to go back to something first, about the reading material — that it made sense to me to bring in Medea, to bring in Persephone. When we were living in upstate New York, there were probably eight or nine of us kids. Everyone was poor in their own ways in upstate New York. But they would give my father boxes of books for us, and there were all these amazingly beautiful books of the Greek myths. Woodprint cuts, aluminum cuts. So we would just lie around and look at pictures and read the stories; The Little Match Girl is one of the most profound things that happened to us all. I don’t know why we related to it so intensely, but everybody was invested in this little girl who dies because she freezes to death, but she goes to heaven. And that’s what I took into the jails. Somehow for me it made sense, and I realized that a lot of women had already heard some of it. The Ugly Duckling, which was Hans Christian Andersen — the book of life and language that we all knew something about. I even have a tape of my mom talking about being the ugly duckling in her family.
AP: So from a very early age, myth and life were not distinct.
RJ: No. It was all there. Together. And when I went into the jails I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to get these women to perform their stories.” I had already done Big Butt Girls and I had already gotten praise and accolades and I had already won a Bessie and I thought, “How do I put them on the road to telling their own story and what could be a model?” Medea was the first model because that summer I had seen A Dream of Passion. I must have seen it eight times, with Ellen Burstyn and Melina Mercouri and then I saw Pasolini’s Medea and this was like my own little education. I was so moved by the two women in A Dream of Passion because the one woman really did kill her child and the other woman is an actress. Before that, I had met this woman inside, who had killed her baby because the guy was going to leave her. Medea was one of the first stories that I told; the women loved the books but they didn’t read. They liked to look at pictures. I told the story of Medea and The Ugly Duckling but Medea was the first story and they got really upset.
AP: An ancient Greek story about a woman who murders her children…
RJ: Yes, they got so upset. They were so mad at her. “That bitch was stupid!” “There wasn’t no man ever make me do that!” I said, “Wait a minute! We’re sitting here in jail, y’all. There’s some little one, somewhere, he or she may as well be dead ’cause you’re caught up in this.” “My mother’s got my kids.” I said, “If they’re lucky. But they don’t have you.” Then that began a whole ’nother conversation about who they were as mothers, and I said, “I’m not judging you, because I don’t know what happened. It hasn’t happened to me to that degree, but I want everyone to just write a little bit about Medea. How are you Medea?” “Uh-uh.” I said, “No, how?” And then you find out that people can’t write. And this was when I was gradually starting to bring in other actresses, because I wanted people there to help write, which I didn’t realize was going to be a problem. Certain things are given, you think. The first couple shows we made, people were gone. You’d have done all this work — we’d be in jails for four to six months — and we’d come in and people would be gone. They wouldn’t have known when they were getting out, so my leading actresses would just be gone.
When we got the big job at Z Space, which used to be Theater Artaud, I brought in all these women that I knew: Belinda Sullivan, Nikki, Tanya Mayo, LaRaye Lyles, Nancy Johnson, an amazing Caribbean-Afro choreographer — there was just this great group of women. A lot of them got kind of taken because they fell in love with this kind of classic incarcerated woman. The girls who were feeling their own sexuality and stuff, they were getting caught up with these women. And I’m saying, look, you can’t. But at the same time it was marvelous.
The first piece we did was Reality Is Just Outside the Window. It was one woman who wanted to honor her grandmother, the only one who stayed with her. All these incarcerated women’s families came. People were crying; it made everybody think about their relationship to the world, society, and I just gave people carte blanche to do what they thought had to be done. All of a sudden we were like a meteorite, everybody was going to come to see us, they were talking about us. It was stunning and I was still so like, “Well, okay, we did that one, what are we going to do now?”
But I was writing a lot, I was watching myself. Alice Walker said, you know, the best way to cure a broken heart is to write it down. Stanley Kubrick says it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t write it down. Write it down. So that’s what I had in the beginning.
AP: In working with the figure of Medea so publicly, and with other Greco-Roman myths — in some ways those stories, as part of the western canon, have participated in maintaining this privileged male, white normative space, that especially in the last twenty years in the field of Classics, has come under fire, and rightfully so. So I’m wondering if you’ve ever gotten any kind of kickback. Why are you using these dominant paradigm myths?
RJ: See, I didn’t even speak that language. Ellen Gavin, who founded Brava! for Women in the Arts, great writer, she was one of the people who wanted to push back on that.
AP: So some people were critical of that move. How did you respond to that?
RJ: I just said, “You know what? I’m interested that they respond.” And eventually, people were getting it. At first it was like, “Well is Rhodessa Jones a therapist? Is she an artist?” People think they know something about the Classics. I didn’t know that much, I just knew that Medea had killed her children, and I met a woman who killed her baby, and Medea made sense to me, so that became the story. And she also told me so much — this woman was already on the moon when I first started to go to the cells in the back at the city jail and she’d just be sitting there, all glassy-eyed, and she had smothered her baby. She’d say, “Only god can judge me, I’m going to be going home soon.”
Everybody was so mad at her about it; the first time I saw her walk to the showers it was like, “what the hell is this?” Everybody wanted a piece of her, and they were crying and trying to reach her and the deputies would have to do this whole thing to protect her. And when I started studying Medea I felt like history had really wronged her. I wasn’t intellectual enough, it was all very visceral for me. I wanted this woman to somehow forgive herself.
And I would tell them, “What ways are we killing our children?” “What is your name?” “What is your mother’s name?” “What are your children’s names?” “What do you tell your children about where you are?” All of a sudden they’re thinking about all this stuff. There were two or three layers of self-examination on their way to being self-expressed. I love that people were willing to be intimate. I discovered the cheerleaders. I discovered that people had gone to college. I said, “You know, you haven’t always been a crackhead or a ho. Who were you before?” And then the people, “I don’t want to think about it.” I said, “Why’s that?” It was just that organic and raw and real and at the same time there was information coming from everywhere.
AP: And you were picking it up.
RJ: For example, the jail told Sean that they would not understand the Clarence Thomas hearings. They wouldn’t let the women watch it. And so Sean would record it. And at first they were like, “Oh, that bitch did that, she lying on that brother,” but then gradually it was like, “You know, Sean, I believe her.” Sean was like, “Oh yeah, why is that?” “’Cause first off look at her. She ain’t even styling, she’s just giving it up.” It was just this whole thing of Sean saying, check it out, she’s a Black woman too, she’s a lawyer, and all of a sudden they’re looking at Anita Hill and they’re looking at Clarence Thomas versus this knee-jerk reaction. Well, it goes back to the beginning of time that women are liars. And with African American women we are still so invested in protecting our men: you don’t scream rape, you know, you don’t do those things. We would get to [asking] why? Why do you have to put up with this? It was interesting for them to be talking about it. Like, okay, you have to get your ass kicked? “You know, he gets so upset…”
And the masturbation workshop, we would send the women back to the jail dorms, because they didn’t know what orgasms were. And Sean would say, “How many of y’all have orgasms?” “What?!” “How many of you come?” “Damn, Sean.” Sean said, “No, how many of you do? You know what I’m talking about?” “Yeah!” Sean said, “You break it down, tell me what I’m talking about.” “You know, like you know, when you, you, you…” One girl said, “You thought you wanted to pee.” Sean said, “Okay, this weekend, y’all are going back to the dorm and when the lights are out you’re going to find your spot.” “Ooh, we’ll get in trouble.” Sean said, “How are you going to get in trouble for touching yourself? I want everybody to come back with a report.” And that was pretty amazing; some people were really devastated, they had never, ever experienced that. They were largely the prostitutes; and then you go home with this man who is supposed to take care of you and it’s still him that’s ejaculating. It was wild. Sean said, “What’s that got to do with our lives? Are we just going to spend our lives lying flat on our back for either money or our time and we don’t get nothing out of it?”
AP: You’ve said in the past, “My work is about women needing to be loved.” Your work really insistently focuses on the experiences of women — often at the hands of men — and invites women to articulate and then eventually perform those experiences. Could you talk about developing the Medea Project and its orientation in more recent years toward women diagnosed with HIV or AIDS in the Bay Area, where much of the focus, especially early and understandably, has been on men living with HIV or AIDS? You’ve really kept your attention on women, so I wonder if you found any moments of resistance to that here or any criticism of that, or why you find it so essential to keep Medea Project exclusively focused on women.
RJ: Arnie Zane, my brother-in-law, was one of the first people that I saw contract HIV/AIDS and die from it. And my brother, Bill T. Jones, suffered immensely. It was just foreign to all of us. Everyone was just having fun. I spent a lot of time in New York in those days. Me and my two sisters, we were in several of Bill’s shows in New York, so we were with them. You didn’t hear about women in the beginning; the women, basically gay women, they were taking care of these men, that’s where they would enter. At La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club — I worked at La MaMa one year for like six or seven months — there was a group of women who organized this meeting in Ellen Stewart’s large theater, and it was really about prostitutes who had survived, women who were very smart about their bodies and loved their bodies and were putting on condoms. They came in, showing women if you work in the street how you have one in your mouth, how you slip it on. I was amazed at this. That there were women who had thought about all of this, that there were women who were like, “Yes, I am a prostitute.” And this is what we can do to save our lives.
And then I come back to California and somewhere it’s in my mind, because I’m not really that invested in Medea yet, but I, how do I say, I got this incredible picture image of the HIV virus, you know. As women, we’re moist, we’re like caves, and it’s really much harder on us. It’s about the history of the vagina. Just back to old shame about our bodies, our periods. And I would just shiver at the idea of having this virus on top of everything. On top of your period and how funky that could be and if you’re living on the street, you’re a prostitute. And my respect for women started to grow. As we’ve been talking I’ve realized that I learned a lot about who I was and my own body by doing this work. I never really talked about y’all versus us. It was “what are we going to do.” And the whole idea of being somebody’s mother when you were sixteen, and all these women who had been down that road with me, and lord knows, they were addicted and their daughters were having babies and there were women with HIV and they weren’t telling anybody and the shame around that, and even back to masturbation, orgasm, it’s never about you. And Sean was always saying how women were always short-changed, we’re always expected to give it up. We’re always expected to have less. We’re always expected to eat last, we’re always expected to sacrifice our daughters to these men. The women who were broken and the women who could speak, it was profound, what they had lost. When they caved under the weight of it, when they were faced with their own disappointment and self, how do you help them stand again?
I’d witnessed them with men, they throw everything away. The scales had fallen from my eyes, every which way that I turned. My mother used to say, “It’s better to marry than to burn.” And I was like, I’m just not going to suppress my own emotions and marry anybody.
The one thing I want a girl to remember is when she was free, you know. A psychologist said to me that by the time she is nine, she’s fully formed, she knows exactly what she wants to do, and then life comes along and knocks it out of her. I remember that for myself at nine, telling my dad I was going to be a ballerina, I was going to have a jet. I was going to fly to Russia, I was going to have lots of boyfriends. Not just one, lots of boyfriends. I was going to have a pink Cadillac. And my father, working on the cars, he was like, “Wonderful, I bet you will, Slim.” I said, “I am, I’m gonna.” [laughs] Who knew? Where did I get all that from? The center of it, it was all frothy and beautiful, and that was going to be my life. And I was nine. I’ve asked other women, “When did you know? And when did life start to hurt?” That’s about the time that you’re twelve, when you’ve realized you can’t be all the dream pieces that you put together, or the world won’t let you.
AP: This makes me think of the song that you often play at the end of the performances.
RJ: “A Rose is Still a Rose” [by Aretha Franklin].
AP: Yeah. [sings] “Baby girl you’re still a flower.”
RJ: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And back to women with HIV, it’s a different long game because they’re the ones that have really hung in there with me. They don’t play around in the periphery. I guess, you know, I’m not quite sure what I really want the Medea Project to do, but I think it’s about freedom.
I don’t know what free is anymore, but I got my own apartment, I made my own money. The loneliness sometimes is kind of astounding, you know, my darling Umberto died, and that’s part of age and time, but I feel like the Medea Project has given me a place to stand. And that’s what I can do with incarcerated women, give them a place to stand, help them speak truth to power. I think that’s what the next show is going to be about, speaking truth to power. The women started saying, we want to do our own stories. It was joyous that people wanted to stand up publicly and say, “This happened to me.” This is not your mother’s theater. You’ve got to be invested in saving the lives of other people.
AP: Telling the story is so powerful and sometimes it’s just not the right time, you know, one isn’t able in the moment to do that… Thinking about the power of story and narrative, authors and practitioners like Oliver Sacks and Abraham Verghese in the last generation let’s say, have been theorizing and popularizing the intersection of science, specifically medical science, and art. And one development has been for some medical schools to offer programs in what they’re now calling narrative medicine. These include literary reading groups for medical students and their participation in dance and other performative arts. So they’re trained in how to respond not just clinically but aesthetically. And holistically. And here, closer to us, the UCSF Medical Center has a program in medical humanities. So this is an interesting cross-disciplinary moment between science, medical science in particular, and the arts, in which the power of narrative art for those in need of care is coming into alignment with the power of narrative art for those intending to offer care. Can you talk a little bit about how the creative work of the Medea Project is in concert with the medical, scientific treatment of the diagnosed women who participate in the Medea Project?
RJ: I do a lot of lecturing at UC Medical Center because of Dr. Eddy. I didn’t know it, but my whole way of lecturing is storytelling. After the first night of Dancing with the Clown of Love, which is the first show Medea did with women living with HIV at the center, there was a Q&A. And I knew, especially with performance as medicine, you should have a Q&A; there were people who stood up and admitted that they had been living with HIV. That was breathtaking. And nobody in the audience flinched.
It’s just healing to feel you’ve been heard. Everybody needs to be heard. Especially women. At UC Medical Center, that first group of women with HIV, they were interviewed at Dr. Eddy’s HIV clinic about working with Medea, and the women talked about, if nothing else, being in the Medea Project with HIV, with other women with HIV; they felt a kin. They felt like they weren’t alone. One product of that was a published medical paper called “Expressive Therapy.” The dancing, the singing, it opens you up, it makes you breathe, it’s okay if you’re not very good at it. But you’re doing that versus longing for dope or turning tricks. Dr. Eddy took us to the HIV/hepatitis symposium in DC, and we were the entertainment at the end of the day, with all these scientists and doctors. Dr. Eddy was concerned.
AP: About your reception?
RJ: Well because we were using explicit language to talk about trauma — When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon? was one of our pieces. This woman had written this amazing story about this man taking her down to the Bay and putting a gun to her head and making her walk. And the language is “Walk, bitch. Bitch, I’ll blow your brains out” and all this kind of stuff.” And Dr. Eddy got scared, “Those people, they’ve been in meetings all day, they’re not going to want to hear this kind of talk.” But of course they loved it. They loved it. And then Felicia just rapped, “Don’t Touch That Rock.” And these old doctors, to this day, I have this image that Felicia had ’em. Felicia said, “Don’t touch that rock” and they were like, “No we won’t! We won’t!”
AP: So you found a really welcome reception.
RJ: Yes. This is back to my voice, my power. And people have to admit that there is something else. It’s something else. Any intelligent person, even if they don’t like it/me, it’s like… hmm.
That intersectionality of medicine and performance, it has been the thing I think that has kept Marlene [Stoeckl, Medea Project member] alive. Marlene decided she is going to have a baby, in the middle of it. AIDS, HIV, and then she meets Rudy and she’s going to have a baby and she goes to Dr. Eddy and this other doctor and says, “I’ll do whatever it takes, but I want to have a baby and I’m going to have a baby with this guy.”
AP: And now she has a beautiful little boy. And he comes to Medea Project.
RJ: All the time! She had to go home and tell her family that she was HIV positive and we were all waiting. We were all like, “Call us.” She emailed us a couple of times but other than that she just sailed right through it. I think it had to do with all the exchange, checking in, all the stuff that she had heard around her. We held her.
AP: For my last question — would you rather talk about politics and Trump and your art or would you rather talk about the role of faith and spirit in your work?
RJ: Well, I’ll just say this, people who are doing activism, you gotta have some faith, you better have some faith. You better have some faith, trusting that the universe will open and give you what you need. I am overwhelmed and I am bewildered as to what, what can we do with Trump and the politics of our experience right now?
AP: Here’s what I specifically want to ask you about that. At the Lost & Found event on February 4th at CounterPulse, you said as part of the panel discussion, “We are all in this together. I don’t believe in the divide.” So I’m wondering what valence does that have for you under a Trump presidency in particular. And here’s where I get stuck sometimes — how do you balance your own political and artistic inclination toward unity, inclusivity and oneness, with the simultaneous need for some folks at least to see more clearly how their privilege and gender is crucially different and produces unequal lived experiences. How can we reconcile the need for inclusive oneness with the lived, experienced division of people who are politically, socially, culturally enfranchised and people who aren’t?
RJ: I think you still have to hold onto the fact that we are not divided. People are scared. And it pisses me off why they’re scared. It’s because Barack Obama was the Black president and they felt there was no place for them. That’s how to simplify it. And then we have Trump. I get very sad. At the same time, as a woman, sister girl, daughter, I’m like, yeah, we’re all Americans, and I don’t care what you do. All of us beating our chests and jumping up and down, it’s because we’ve been told we’re free. All of us, you know, all of us. We’ve gotta come with a little bit of love.
We just have to really take care of each other. It’s the time to do your work, in hard times. Do your work, find out whatever your work is. Hamilton’s America was on PBS the other night and Lin-Manuel Miranda, he says, “Nobody knows how much time they have.” I really want to use that line. What are you doing with the time you have? What have I done with the time I have? What have we done with what we have done? Is that important? Will people want to hear that? Will it help somebody?