note: entire contents copyright 1999 by The Des Moines REGISTER
This was in the Des Moine Register last Sunday
Just wanted to share it.
Ten minutes before the curtain opened on "Mother's Day in the Holding Tank," actress Cindy Jackson was pacing. Not nerves, she insisted; it felt more like being on meth.
Funny analogy. Meth is what landed the character she plays in the holding tank. The woman was turning tricks to feed her drug habit.
But meth is also what landed Jackson, now 40, inside the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. "Conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine," her conviction read. Jackson was making her acting debut in the unlikeliest of settings: a maximum-security women's prison. Playing opposite her were two lifers and a woman doing 50 years. Talk about life imitating art imitating life. This was more than a captive audience. It was also a captive cast.
It was only the second time in Mitchellville history that a play produced by inmates would be performed in prison. And it was the world premiere of the part-poignant, part-comical play by Seattle playwright Sharyn Shipley.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a script that hit closer to home.
Just before 7 p.m. Wednesday, the first night of a four-day run, about a dozen women filed into the gym at the Mitchellville prison. With a few exceptions, they wore prison-issue blue button-down shirts and jeans or gray sweat pants. They took folding chairs from the back of the gym and set them up below the stage.
The music started up first, a moving piano solo. Then the curtain opened on a stage set simply, with four chairs, a phone booth and a backdrop, both scrawled with inmate-generated graffiti:
Perry Mason Help Me!
In my anguish, I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free.
This place sucks.
They can lock up the body, but they can't lock up the mind.
Slowly the four actresses moved up from the back of the gym, and climbed on stage. Each picked her costume off a chair and changed into it.
Jackson got into rapid-fire as Ms. Meth, a hardened, streetwise 30-something woman with a mysterious past: "I been here a hundred, maybe a thousand times. Yeah, maybe a thousan'. Nothin' happenin' in here. No. Outside, outside it's goin' on . . . ."
It took Des Moines actress Marti Sivi more than a year of hammering on the prison doors to get permission to produce a play with inmates. Sivi turned to prison as a way to mix her love of theater with something socially useful. After 25 years of acting and producing plays at the Des Moines Playhouse and The Drama Workshop, appearing in shows like "The Sisters Rosensweig" and "Moon Over Buffalo," she wanted to reach a group of women everyone else had given up on.
Earlier this year, she produced Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" at Mitchellville. She found "Mother's Day in the Holding Tank" after putting out a call to playwrights for a script relevant to the women's lives.
If this were a proper review --- that is, if there were any chance that you might see the play --- climaxes and endings would not be revealed. But you won't see it. Only Mitchellville inmates, staffers and volunteers could. Wednesday night's was a special performance of "Mother's Day in a Holding Tank" for a prison mothers' support group. The play is about four women from very different circumstances, who end up together in a county jail on Mother's Day. They start out hostile, but as they learn each other's secrets, the walls come down and an unlikely sort of community is formed.
Ms. Meth's secret is her deformed child who died before she could ever name it. There are hints that her drug use was to blame. Whether it was or not, she's been living with the guilt.
The other women join forces to name the dead child.
Elizabeth Rose Brown Hemmings Nardle (Regina Akright), a Jesus-quoting drunk in her 40s, married multiple times and mother to 10 children;
Allison Storey (Kathy Tyler), a middle-class PTA mom who has landed here because of unpaid parking tickets and insists she doesn't belong; and
Bonnie (C. Shobha Horstman), a precocious but frightened 14-year-old runaway with an ill-tempered father. She was arrested for reasons we don't know.
The show has enough wisecracks and jail references to keep the audience giggling, but then it slips you a one-two punch.
It's the ending that seems to affect the inmates. All the women but the youngest have been bailed out. When the curtain closes on Bonnie, alone, she is waiting for parents who may never show.
Horstman, who played her, cried every time she got to that part. That sense of abandonment and hopelessness cut too close to the bone, the lanky 32-year-old said.
"They're not abandoning me, but I wonder what they're doing out there," she said of her own parents, during a recent rehearsal.
Wednesday night, Horstman was in good company. The audience cried, too.
Inmate Roberta Johnson, serving a 10-year drug sentence, said the baby part also hit her because she has three children, but if you added up the abortions and miscarriage, she could have had six. She last saw her youngest nine months ago. "His dad doesn't want him to see me like this. He doesn't think it's right for him." Teresa Saldana wiped her eyes as she described losing custody of five children because of her involvement with drugs.
She's doing 25 years.
Visitors to Mitchellville always seem to be struck by the ordinariness of the women they meet there. You go expecting people who fit your image of hardened criminals. Instead you meet funny, smart, likeable, even timid folks.
During one rehearsal, a thunderstorm broke out, rattling windows and sending the gym into darkness. And Horstman, serving hard time for a hard crime, buried her head in her knees and cowered in fear. Another time, Samantha Lovett, who carries herself with abundant self-confidence, panicked in the presence of a spider. "Extreme arachnophobia," she explained later, a little apologetically.
Behind the compound's metal gates, a parallel world exists out of sight of the rest of us. In it, hundreds of women deemed unfit to live in society joke, work, cry, bond, fight and carry on their daily lives. However hideous their crimes, prison volunteers like Sivi are gambling that there's a payoff in humanizing their environment and helping them
develop as people.
This may be difficult to accept or understand, especially if you were touched by their crimes. But Iowa does not sentence people to death. The premise behind this program, and other volunteer ones, is to make their remaining years here productive ones, allowing for growth and self-awareness.
"I don't make any excuses for their crimes," Sivi said, "but I see women who have extremely long sentences, and some for life, and I see a human being who needs something."
The fact that the women had mostly never acted before was the least of Sivi's challenges. Try producing a play where the players have to drop everything and rush back to their units for head counts every two hours. Try getting out the punch line over the loudspeaker punctuating every few minutes with booming announcements. Imagine hauling every costume back and forth, then counting every piece of clothing before and after use so no one can get her hands on it for a disguise or a suicide device.
Then there are the cast substitutions each time an inmate gets transferred out of state, or paroled, or breaks the rules and ends up in solitary. This play, five months in the making, averaged one substitution a month.
Nor did the inmates who stayed have an easy time of it.
For Cindy Jackson, acting Ms. Meth uncorked a sometimes painful process of self-discovery. She identified so much with her part, she found herself becoming that angry drug user she used to be.
"My roommate said, 'Cindy, every time you come back from the play, you come back so hateful and so stressed,' " she recalled, "so I thought maybe I shouldn't be doing this anymore. Then I started leaving the character here and not taking it back with me."
"I see me how I used to be when I was on drugs," said Jackson, who has been granted a parole release and should be out any day now. "I see how angry and afraid I was."
For other inmates, the value of the play was in the bonding with other players, and in the distraction. "On Saturdays, this is like my refuge, the place where I can go, step out of the inmate persona and just relax," said Lovett, sentenced for theft, who has an offstage role.
So Sivi gets her reward. It comes from seeing women who were "terrified of their own voices" finding the power to dazzle audiences. It comes from getting a call from a prison minister about the strides an inmate she's worked with has made.
"If it's helped just one person, that's enough," she said. "I don't care if the loudspeaker's coming on or someone's going too fast with her lines.
"It's probably the most satisfying thing I've ever done."
Rekha Basu can be reached at (515) 284-8208 or email@example.com
The cast of prison performers
Akright, 46, has served seven years out of a life sentence for murder.She describes her character, Elizabeth Nardle, as "an old lady, a religious drunk . . . who likes to help people," and has 10 children. Akright has seven, ranging from 27 years to 8 years old, and says she, like her character, is very religious, and a friend and mother to many people. She
says the play has given her self-confidence and allowed her to bond with other inmates.
She stole the show.
C. Shobha Horstman
Horstman (Bonnie), 32, is doing 50 years for child endangerment. She has been at Mitchellville nearly two months, at Oakdale one and one-half years before that. While in prison, she gave birth to a son, who is now 20 months old and is being raised by his father in Des Moines. She was brought into the cast when another inmate went into isolation, and she says being in the play has made the time go faster and made her feel productive.
Jackson (Ms. Meth), 40, is due to be released this week on parole. She was sentenced to 10 years for conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine. She sees many parallels between her character, Ms. Meth, and herself. "I'm very angry, and I have a lot of hidden issues that I've never dealt with," she says. "In the play, it's a baby that she's lost . . . but in my life, I had a bad marriage, drug addiction, I was an alcoholic before that."
Tyler, 63, (Allison Storey) has been in the news lately because of her clemency appeal under consideration by Gov. Tom Vilsack. She's on her 21st year of a life sentence for first-degree murder. She calls her character a traditional woman, much like herself, but says that unlike Allison, she has never looked down on anyone else in prison. The play's message, she says, is "love and tolerance. The abolishment of stereotypical ideas."
Also involved were Samantha Lovett, 34, who did an offstage voice and helped operate sound equipment, and is doing 10 years for theft, and Vikki Waller, stage manager, serving 50 years for second-degree murder.