After the May 2019 performance of Quick Brewed Macbeth at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center (MECC) in Pacific, we received this letter from one of the audience members, Aisling (Ash) Jennings, a senior at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. We’re posting her words on our blog so that you can share the joy and take the time to read this letter from Aisling, who is deeply involved in examining and understanding the criminal justice system and its potential to heal and make the world a better place.
Aisling found PPA on Facebook and inquired about visiting to complete research for a school project that was the culmination of her senior work at school. Christopher Limber, PPA Artistic Director, was able to facilitate her visit to see Quick Brewed Macbeth, where she volunteered and spoke with the men to complete a statistical study about empathy and the effect of PPA.
A Note on the Experience of a Day with Quick Brewed Macbeth
As I drove up to the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, I was riddled with anxiety. The imposing guard towers set a striking image against the gray and dripping sky. I took a deep breath, turned off my phone and put on my professional face to walk into the reception. I received a body alarm and followed Christopher Limber into the prison through several airlocked doors. The general demeanor of walking into a correctional facility is enough to put anyone on edge. However, I was not anxious about my safety or any of the ‘traditional’ fears about being put in a room with convicts for the entire day. No, I was terrified of rejection; that these men would see me as some stuck-up girl who was only interested in measuring them like zoo-animals. I was afraid of dehumanizing them. But I couldn’t have had a more different experience. In the first few hours of my visit I was quiet, keep to myself and adopted a demure and small body posture out of habit. Chris introduced me to the cast and crew of the production and immediately, several of the men came over to introduce themselves personally. They asked about my life, beyond this project, beyond my study. I don’t think I have ever been more at ease in a room full of people that I had just met than I was there. Due to the bounds of my confidentiality, I cannot discuss the specific conversations or interactions I had with the members of this wonderful group or even name them. Even if I was able to, I don’t know if I have the writing ability to accurately reflect my interactions and observations. Over the nearly twelve hours I spent in the stark bright visitors’ room, I watched something beautiful happen. Scores and words cannot capture the light behind the actors’ eyes as they stood on stage, the way their spines relaxed, or the way their faces softened. As I went through the day, I realized how truly lucky I was to be there. Yes, I was so lucky and grateful to be given this research opportunity in the first place. But beyond that, I got to be a very small part of something truly human, beautiful human connection.
When I started driving home, I was overcome with the feeling that my project wasn’t enough, that my survey wasn’t enough. I knew that I couldn’t quantitatively capture my experience of just one day in the program. I didn’t want to reduce these wonderful people to scores and numbers. Those scores couldn’t capture what I saw and felt. 88 total questions could never be enough. I sat later that week entering data into a file and calculating scores. I wondered if my scoring was reductive, dehumanizing; that if I committed to the way I had decided to quantify people that I was somehow participating in the systematic dehumanization of those who are incarcerated. I was overcome with an urge to trash the entire study, a whole school years’ worth of work because it didn’t feel adequate. Maybe it wasn’t. But that’s not why I am writing this letter. This letter is about this program. How no amount of statistical data ever can truly show what this program can be. That is gives the opportunity to not only grow and change but to do art for art’s sake, something that is truly lacking in this world. To show that people are not their pasts and that we are all playing a role in some ways. That’s what makes it so powerful. In a world where we strip everything away from each other and place a label, places like what PPA creates are desperately needed. And despite the fact that this story is from my viewpoint, it isn’t about me. It shouldn’t be about me. It’s about giving the mic over to members of PPA, stepping away, and letting them tell their own stories. With gratitude, Aisling Jennings.