Around the Institute

“An Unlikely Community” an Interview with Lily Whitsitt

September 14, 2012  • ADS Works

Lily WhitsittLily Whitsitt is a theater director and interdisciplinary artist based in New York City. She worked with Anna Deavere Smith Works throughout 2011 and is currently, among other things, a facilitator for the nonprofit organization called Rehabilitation Through the Arts. She recently sat down with ADSWorks researcher and curatorial assistant, Ethan Philbrick, to discuss her most recent project with RTA—co-directing a production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson at Fishkill Correctional Facility—and her thoughts about the role theater plays and might play within the US prison system.  

Check out a NY1 piece on the RTA project at Fishkill here.

Ethan Philbrick: How did you come to work with Rehabilitation Through the Arts? What drew you to this organization particularly, and this sort of work more generally?

Lily Whitsitt: I learned about the organization from another theater director in New York I really respect, Arin Arbus. I came to RTA just after finishing graduate school [in directing at CalArts] and moving back to New York after being away for three years. I was hungry for a community to engage with, where I could apply my studies in a meaningful, personal and important exchange. Coming out of my MFA program, I felt I’d lost touch with that urgency. I knew that coming back to New York was an important next stage in my professional career, and I wanted to reconnect with the root of why I do what I do.

E: What draws you to do theater in the context of a prison? What do you think theater allows you to do and allows you to get at?

L: I’m always encouraged by Anna [Deavere Smith]’s belief that art is aspirational, not just inspirational. I became even more convinced of the transformative power of theater in a prison context. Working intensively with a group on a production for an extended period of time, particularly in this context, creates such a unique feeling of community, commitment, and responsibility for everyone involved.   Last summer I was supposed to co-lead a workshop with Connie Grappo, the woman with whom I co-directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. At the last minute, our schedules didn’t coincide, and RTA asked me if I wanted to lead my own workshop. I’d never worked in prisons and wasn’t confident I had the skills the job deserved, but I said yes because I wanted the exchange. I was interested in creating a space where we could expand our imaginations beyond the confines of the environment. I developed a melodrama and physical theater workshop, focuing on scenes from Camino Real. We used the classroom where we met and the elements in the space to create the environment of the play: a plastic bag and electric fan became wind, a desk became a high stone wall, pieces of a large anatomical heart puzzle became a poetic image of Kilroy’s death. Together we created an imaginative landscape. It was a transformative experience for me as an artist and human being. 

There was one guy in particular who was in Ma Rainey. At first, it was a challenge for him to read aloud from a page in front of a group, for numerous reasons. Now he can come in a room, pick up a page of text he’s never seen before, memorize it with ease, and perform in front of a group of 150 people, no problem. He’s a leader. It was a meaningful journey – the confidence, power, control he discovered within himself. But these changes take time; it’s an individual and group effort. It takes a commitment, week after week – everyone has to show up and support one another – and then slowly things shift, for everyone in the room. Theater is the tool for this change.      

I think the reason why I’m so drawn to theater is that it allows for community—inside and outside prison—and I feel like at its best, it’s an unlikely community. Theater allows you to find community in places you wouldn’t expect; it demands presence and engagement. For me, theater has been a vehicle for community to happen. 

E: I’d love to hear a little bit more about the specifics of this particular production of Ma Rainey that you were recently involved in. Why that play, why at this moment? How did that come about?

L: Connie Grappo approached me about co-directing a production with her at Fishkill. I was excited about this opportunity, because in addition to being a great director, Connie is the RTA facilitator who has been at Fishkill the longest – she really knows how to make things happen within the facility. I was eager to learn from her experience. Over a few weeks we brought in selections from several plays for the group to mull over. After reading sections of the texts aloud and discussing the possibilities, as a group we chose Ma Rainey.  

 Ma Rainey was definitely the play everyone connected with the most. Wilson’s characters are so easy to relate to. I especially love the different perspective that each band member brings to the play. You have an ambitious, eager young person; a cantankerous, wise father figure; a philosopher; and a floater. In some ways, these various perspectives together make up one person’s psyche. Together they create a rich tapestry of diverse experience through which Wilson gets to try out all these different ideas that he’s wrestling with, and that we are all in some ways wrestling with.  

The guys really connected with these characters They got excited that it was a period piece – they liked learning the accents and the slang. They were passionate about embodying these people. In fact, the two previous RTA productions that had been done at Fishkill were also August Wilson plays. Wilson’s plays and characters – that reflect the challenges and struggles of the black community – hold a powerful place in this facility.

E: Interesting. Was there a specific scene or moment of the play that was especially powerful in rehearsal or performance? 

L: There were so many. One that immediately comes to mind is Levee’s big monologue at the end of the first act. It’s a very difficult piece of text. In rehearsal we did a lot of specific sensory work with the images. Opening night of the performance, it was just the prison population – no outside guests. Right before this monologue, there’s a scene where all the band members are ragging on Levee, giving him a really hard time, and everyone in the audience was laughing. Then the actor playing Levee stepped up and started this incredibly emotional, moving text – describing the rape of his mother, which he witnessed as a boy. Here this actor was, standing in front of an audience of men – some of whom had committed similar crimes to what he was describing – and I was suddenly astounded at how brave he was to say these words. Everyone was silent. It was electric – as if in that moment his performance created a bridge between the world of the play and the reality of the room.  

Another performance I must mention is Nate Alston’s, who played Ma Rainey. He is a skilled performer and powerfully embodied this strong epic woman. It was a very moving moment when he sang “Hear Me Talking To You” as Ma. He was totally in control. He owned the moment and the audience.  

 Here’s this man who had been in prison for over 30 years, singing this famous song as the mother of the blues – in full drag – in the prison gym. There was laughter at first, but everybody in the audience was with him. I was floored by his skill, power, and intelligence as a performer. He played Ma in such a masculine way, which I think was 100% right for the character and the audience he was performing for.  

Another huge challenge that Nate had to overcome was the issue of costumes. Because of security reasons, we couldn’t have all of the costume elements in rehearsal. We couldn’t have his wig until the day before the performance. Our last rehearsal was the first time Nate was able to wear heels, stockings, Ma’s dress and wig. The night before opening he took me aside and said, “How do I walk in these things?” He is a brave man.  

E: How did it come about that you and Connie decided to cast a man as Ma Rainey?  

L: Connie and I felt strongly that the role had to go to an RTA member. The whole play is structured around the part, and we didn’t want to give this key role to an outside actor. We knew Nate could do it, because he’s an incredibly talented performer and dancer, and a very wise human being. We took him aside one day and asked what he thought about the idea. He asked to have some time to think about it. Then we talked it through with the group – we wanted to see if they had concerns, especially about safety. After discussing the idea, we agreed that it was a powerful opportunity, and everybody felt that Nate could do the part justice. There were a couple members of the group who wanted us all to be aware of how the rest of the prison population might view the choice to have Nate in drag. Then Nate said, which really stuck with me, that he wanted to play the role for two reasons: one, because he was a real actor and it was a great role, and two, that since RTA’s mission is about breaking down barriers and stereotypes, this was his way of living by those beliefs. It became an opportunity to challenge preconceptions, especially about masculinity in a prison context.  

The one thing I think Connie and I didn’t imagine until we were there, with opening night already in progress, was what it would feel like just before Nate walked on stage in drag as Ma Rainey, with 150 prisoners sitting in the audience – who didn’t know RTA’s mission or culture. How were they going to react? In that split second I know Connie and I were thinking: did we make a mistake? Is this going to be dangerous for him? 

E: Right, totally. 

L: I should say that we found out during rehearsals that Nate was granted parole after over thirty years in prison. In fact, we found out that several members of our group were going to be getting out, which was uplifting, and changed the tone for some of the guys, including Nate. He’s now a free man. We got together for our first meeting on the outside a couple weeks ago.       

E: Fantastic. What do you feel like you learned from your cast members? 

L: In some ways, the work feels selfish because I get so much out of it,. I’ve learned so much from the guys about patience and persistence, about the importance of just showing up and doing the work.  

E: Definitely. With this and RTA’s name and mission in mind, what does rehabilitation mean? 

L: I was talking about this with Javier Cardona last night, who’s the Director of Education for RTA. Rehabilitation can be a dangerous word because it can take on a negative medical connotation, as if there’s a group of sick people who need help, and others to give it. 

Although in prison there are certainly men and women who are emotionally damaged, the majority of the guys that I work with are not emotionally sick and do not need rehabilitation. What they need is education, skills to live better inside prison and after they come home, exposure to a broader sense of living. They need those tools, but they don’t need to be rehabilitated. The system needs to be rehabilitated. At RTA we’re committed to using the creative arts as a tool for these social and cognitive transformations. Art is about doing, participating – not just thinking or being passive. You have to simultaneously let go and take control. You are responsible for yourself and others.  

With so many people behind bars, we should be rehabilitating the system. If we see ourselves as a mirror of society, we all have a stake in the process of rehabilitation. RTA proposes an alternative. RTA offers a space where participants can practice life skills and prepare for reentering society. As Javier says, “We rehearse new possibilities of being.”

From the first time I entered prison, I was struck by a sense of social responsibility I’d never experienced before. I realized that I am just as much a part of this system as anyone. Now when I walk down the street in my neighborhood, I think about the fact that I might be walking by a family member or friend of one of the guys I work with. My work with RTA awakened a new understanding of my connection to my community. 

E: Speaking of systems that need to get rehabilitated, I was Twitter-stalking you, and I saw that you had posted a link to Paul Krugman’s op-ed on the New York Times, “Prisons, Privatization and Patronage,” an interesting piece about privatization, government contracts, and giving a more complicated story about what might be wrong within the American prison system.

I was also recently reading a collection called Theater in Prison: Theory and Practice edited by Michael Balfour. Balfour writes in his introduction that, “the theater practitioner is often forced into a duplicitous position, caught on a knife’s edge between resistance to and incorporation into the status quo of the criminal justice system.” 

So in thinking about these two pieces, how do you negotiate working as a facilitator and artist within a system that you might think needs to be rehabilitated? How do you negotiate working within a system that you’re perhaps critical of, but also want to better in some way? 

L: It’s a difficult tightrope to walk. It’s important to note that I don’t work for the Department of Corrections. I work with the guys directly. I volunteer through RTA. The guys know I am coming there of my own volition. It’s not a job.  

It’s a challenge in a prison environment. It is really tricky as a facilitator to create a space of empowerment for the people you’re working with, who are giving so much to you. I find it helpful to interrupt the hierarchical structure of the director calling the shots and the actor following and instead ask, what do you think? It’s about fostering an environment of trust and respect. Collaboration is vital.    

E: Yeah, I can imagine. As a final thought, I’d love to hear more about why you think the kinds of transformations that can happen within theater might be especially important in this context—stepping into another’s shoes, whether those are heels or flats… 

L: Acting is about empathy, and I think through getting to enter these characters, we—inside or outside prison—are fostering empathy and compassion for other people’s stories, for other ways of living, for other perspectives, for other time periods. I think that’s incredibly valuable inside or outside prison.