In exploring the emotionally scarred lives of women prisoners, playwright and preacher Elaine Blanchard creates harmony from tales of discord.
If you go to jail, you probably wouldn’t expect to hear this:
That’s the Andante from Mozart’s String Quartet No. 19 in C Major. It’s called the “Dissonant” quartet, and in this case, the name really fits. That’s because it was being performed for a group of prisoners in a small, harshly-lit classroom in the Shelby County Division of Corrections.
“Oh God, I love the music,” says Jennifer, a mother of four who is currently serving time for violation of probation. “It takes me so many different places. I mean, I can come in from something that was going on in the dorm, that had me kind of upset, and the music just takes me elsewhere. It helps me to relax.”
The string quartet is just the latest addition to Prison Stories, a class that meets twice a week in the jail. Here, imprisoned women gather in a circle of cheap plastic chairs to discuss reading assignments and share stories from their lives. Playwright and storyteller Elaine Blanchard created the class in 2010, and she’s been teaching it ever since.
“Prison Stories is an opportunity for women in our county jail to be heard, to share their story, and to realize that they have something to contribute that means a lot to the rest of us,” Blanchard says.
With her grandmotherly glasses and her gray hair in a pixie cut, Blanchard isn’t exactly the kind of person you’d expect to meet in jail. But she says she can relate to these women, to their sense of being ignored or abandoned.
“As a child,” remembers Blanchard, “I was dismissed as simply a girl, and there wasn’t a lot of value put on me as a person. I was sexually abused, and that was ignored. I was told not to make problems for family and the person who abused me. And those experiences made me believe for a big chunk of my life that I don’t matter.”
All that changed in 2009, when Blanchard attended a solo performance workshop at Voices of the South, a Memphis theater company. The result was For Goodness’ Sake, her one-woman show about violence and racial injustice. Blanchard says that’s where she got the inspiration for Prison Stories.
“That performance shifted people’s understanding of themselves and their own stories,” Blanchard says. “There was something so powerful in speaking my own truth. So, it felt to me like I had a hold of a great treasure, and it would be wrong for me not to do something with it, to share it.”
Blanchard begins each class with a set of breathing exercises. Then, to get things going, she sounds a single note on a singing bowl. On this particular night, Jennifer shares the story of the car wreck that resulted in her most recent incarceration.
“I ended up down in Orleans or somewhere,” remembers Jennifer. “I still can’t tell you how I got there. And I ended up on top of an electrical box. After that I was terrified. I had wrecked the truck. We had just got a loan on the truck (laughs). I was pregnant; I had been drinking; and I knew the police was gonna have to be called. So I called the police.”
Only later, at the hospital, did she learn the extent of her injuries.
“Waking up,” says Jennifer, “I had amnesia. I had a concussion, so I had slight amnesia. They did some ultrasounds of the baby, and the baby was OK. So at that point I was really relieved, but I was also terrified at reality. I’m in the hospital. The truck is at the wrecker. And this is basically what led me back here today.”
As a child, Jennifer was placed in state custody following the death of her father. From there, she says she fell into a life of drugs and prostitution. I asked Jennifer what role Prison Stories has played in her life.
“Many. Many different roles,” says Jennifer. “I mean it’s brought me to the reality of myself, the way I thought. I’m trying to get my words together. But, I guess, the importance of my children.”
According to Blanchard, adding a musical dimension to Prison Stories was the natural next step. So she took her idea to the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and before long, they had arranged to send a string quartet with her into prison.
“I think it’s important,” says Blanchard, “to incorporate music in our circle, because it is the perfect bridge between different groups of people. The music allows us all to feel like human beings, connected by this beautiful sound.”
The musicians perform for the prisoners at the end of class, but their involvement with the program goes much deeper than that. They spend the rest of class sitting in the circle, listening to the women’s stories and sharing their own. Gaylon Patterson is the quartet’s first violin.
“The first meeting was a little bit tense,” Patterson says. “The musicians and Elaine arrived before the women of the class showed up in the room, and we arranged the chairs in a circle. And I purposefully chose a chair that was isolated, with many empty chairs next to me. Everyone chose a seat, and the last two seats were the ones on either side of me. So there was not a high level of trust.”
But it wasn’t long before things started to turn around.
“About halfway through the class,” Gaylon says, “the whole physical dynamic changed, to the point where the beginning of class was always greetings that involved hugs. So it went from this deep suspicion to physical touch, which was a very positive, very organic connection.”
The final element of Prison Stories is a series of live performances. The first takes place inside the jail, in front of the entire prison population and the families of class members. The other three, at TheatreSouth, are open to the public.
“In the end,” Blanchard says, “after the four months of class sessions, we have a performance, where professional actors take to the stage and act out the stories of these women in our jail. So that the women can sit on the front row of the audience and see themselves. So that they can look and say, ‘Oh, you know, I could have been somebody different right there.’”
As January rolls around, it’s time to get ready for the show. When I stop by TheatreSouth, a tiny stage in the basement of First Congregational Church, the rehearsal is already underway.
Actor Tamara Wright plays Brandy, an inmate from Finger, Tennessee, who has struggled with drug addiction. I asked Wright what she’s learned from the experience.
“I have learned that we make inherent judgments about people that aren’t necessarily true,” Wright says. “I’ve discovered that a person’s home life and what they’re born into and raised into predicts more of what may happen later on than I necessarily realized before. That your choices are sometimes more limited, depending on where you’ve come from.”
The actors seemed excited, but I wondered how the inmates felt about having their stories performed onstage for an audience. As you’ve heard, the material can get pretty personal. And I have to admit, I was surprised by their answers. Without exception, and for a variety of reasons, the women I talked to said they welcomed the chance to have their stories told.
“Oh wow, it’s gonna be amazing,” Jennifer says. “Basically, to see someone else act out my story…it’s gonna be spectacular. It’s gonna be amazing to me! Because first of all, I never thought it was that important. But since being in Prison Stories, and being in jail, and coming to be the person that I am today, I see how important it can be and how many lives it can change.”
So…why play Mozart for prisoners? And why should we listen to their stories? Elaine Blanchard has been teaching Prison Stories for eight semesters now, and she says that what keeps her coming back is the knowledge that what she’s doing in the jail really matters.
“Too many people get the message that they don’t matter, that they are disposable,” Blanchard says. “And that makes a human being desperate. If we really want to make the world a better place, we have to take time to listen to each other. Because it’s in listening to each other that we recognize how valuable every human being is.”
John Minervini is a freelance writer who lives in Memphis.