"A Christmas Carol" is a holiday classic. This week the play will be performed at the University of Denver, but this particular show is different. The cast and crew are 40 incarcerated women from the Denver Women's Correctional Facility. This is the first-time incarcerated individuals will take a theatre production outside prison walls and perform in public.
Colorado Edition co-host Erin O'Toole spoke to KUNC's Stephanie Daniel about the unique arts collaboration between the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI) and the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Erin O'Toole: If listeners are having a little bit of déjà vu here, there's a good reason. DU PAI is same initiative that staged 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' with incarnated men. You covered that performance in September, right?
Stephanie Daniel: Right. The group of incarcerated men were from Sterling Colorado and they performed the play at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility. The men worked on every single part of the production. They created the music, they created the sets and they were even stage managing.
And they also went all in with costumes?
They got out of their prison uniforms and put on the costumes. I think that's what's really powerful about the whole thing. Once they put on their costumes, they just become actors. You forget that these men are incarcerated.
You spoke with the director, who's also the founder of this initiative?
Yes, her name is Ashley Hamilton and here's what she had to say about working with incarcerated individuals and the DU PAI program:
"I deeply believe in the power of arts and education inside prison as a way to create transformation for both folks inside, but also in supporting the system as it grows and changes as well. I really believe in the power of creating spaces where people can decide who they are and who they want to be and reflect on just where they are in life and how they want to grow and transform, and I think that the arts are a wonderful vehicle for that."
The initiative has various programs, including dance, creative writing and even a podcast, at 10 facilities throughout the state. The three-year partnership between DU PAI and the Department of Corrections aims to normalize the prison environment, empower inmates to improve their lives and prepare them for a productive and positive life upon release.
Speaking of normalizing prison, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was performed in the gymnasium at the Denver facility and the audience was a mix of visitors and incarcerated women. They did sit on opposite sides of the gym. In your previous story, you said the incarcerated women were immersed in the play.
I kept looking over at them because they were just having so much fun and they laughed a lot. They could relate to the themes of the play because it takes place in a mental institution. DU PAI also has programs at the Denver facility and some of the women in the audience are also in "A Christmas Carol."
Jamiylah Nelson is one of the actors. She's already performed in a couple short plays and now gives acting advice to some of her newer castmates:
"In this environment you have to have your vulnerabilities tucked down deep somewhere in. So, to get into character, you have to do these exercises that calls for you to be silly. That calls for you to open your mind to yourself and to other people. And so, I just tell them like, 'come on, you gotta get into character.' And I just tell them to push themselves, have fun."
The women at the Denver facility have been rehearsing this since July. When you talked to Jamiylah Nelson, how was she feeling about the upcoming performances?
Definitely prepared. She said the cast gets together as much as possible to practice. And seeing the men perform provided her a little extra motivation:
"I'm ready to go, man. I'm just so excited. I hope that we get to travel like this, this will be just an honor… Hopefully, it will shift the paradigm of society and so that they look at us differently. And a lot of people in here we want to change. We have changed. And so hopefully they get to see that we can put ourselves, our minds to something productive. And I want to be a part of that light that shines on DOC."
And she will get her wish. Nelson and the rest of the cast and crew are performing "A Christmas Carol" at the University of Denver this week.
"A Christmas Carol" will be performed at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts Dec. 12-13, 2019.