Voices of the South collaborator Elaine Blanchard didn't know what she would find waiting for her behind prison walls. That worried the storyteller as she prepared to lead a year-long writing and theater workshop with a dozen African-American women who've been tried and convicted for drug trafficking, prostitution, identity theft, and other crimes. "I'm a white woman, and I'm a little bit sweet," she says, turning the word "sweet" into an unexpectedly sharp pejorative. "I worried that they wouldn't trust me or respect me."
Prison Stories, which debuts on Friday, January 28th, at TheatreSouth, was inspired by Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, a coming-of-age story told from a black, female perspective. Blanchard used the book to encourage discussions about motherhood, violence, and the men, good and bad, who helped facilitate both. "They got it immediately," says Blanchard, who watched as the group's better readers took it upon themselves to work with one participant who was functionally illiterate. "We lock up a lot of our neighbors around here," Blanchard says, remembering how discussions quickly inspired the women to tell their own stories.
"I'm a grandma's girl," Blanchard says, slipping into the character of Brenda, one of the women in her group. She tells a story full of brothers and sisters but no parents. She describes sleeping with her grandmother and of the last night her family was together, when she awoke to the sound of her grandmother's voice saying, "RUN!" The house burned all around them.
"I want people to see how special these women are," Blanchard says. "They aren't monsters. They are special and creative."
"Prison Stories," at TheatreSouth (at first congregational church) on Friday, January 28th, 7 to 10 p.m. Tickets are available at the door, donations only (Voicesofthesouth.org).