Rhodessa Jones

Art as a form of healing is examined in the episode of Spark “Art Frees the Soul,” with Rhodessa Jones. As the founder and director of the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, Jones uses improvisational theater to transform the lives of incarcerated women and ex-offenders. Over the past decade, Jones has worked with more than 300 women, helping many of them make a return to society.

When Jones was hired in 1986 to teach aerobics at the city jail in San Francisco, she found that the part of the class that the women enjoyed most was talking. As Jones learned their stories she created the solo work “Big-Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women” based on their lives. Though her own piece received much critical acclaim, she wanted to find a way to let the women she worked with tell their own stories. In 1989, Jones conducted a residency at the San Francisco County Jail that resulted in the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women.

Though Jones hopes the women make their return to society, she knows many women who have gone through her program and still return to jail. She says, “I’m just glad to go back inside and they’re alive … not dead. Because a lot of these people — it’s amazing they’re still alive.” Many women, inside and outside the system, report a positive change from the experience. Jones never knows whom she is going to touch.

Jones is no stranger to a difficult path. One of 12 children, a daughter of migrant workers, Jones found herself pregnant at 16; she didn’t marry the father. She eventually ended up dancing nude to pay the bills. Finding the experience more fascinating than demeaning, she knew that there was a story to tell from it. Jones continues to draw on the experiences from her life. Her more recent piece, “Hot Flashes, Power Surges and Private Summers,” speaks about womanhood after 50.

In addition to her one-woman shows and her work with the Medea Project, Jones has taught and lectured at Stanford and Yale and in Italy and East Africa. She collaborated on the documentary film “We Just Telling Stories,” which won Best Documentary at the San Francisco Black Film Festival (2001). She has directed at Theater for the Twenty-first Century and Campo Santo and was featured in Eve Ensler’s award-winning hit play, “The Vagina Monologues.”

The Medea Project is housed by Cultural Odyssey, which was founded by Idris Ackamoor, executive director, in 1979. Jones joined as co-artistic director in 1983. The two first began performing together in a jazz cabaret act; their repertoire now includes solo performances, workshops and nearly a dozen original projects. Over the years, professional actors and students from workshops have joined the troop, blending their performances with the incarcerated women and ex-offenders.

After 15 years, Jones may be coming to the end of directing for the Medea Project. “I’ve stepped out onto the path, and I’m about to head off into my second life.” Through the project, she feels, many of the issues that face incarcerated women have been unearthed. She now needs to shelve some things to make room for others. She is shifting her focus to a younger generation, hoping to help them through theater before they reach a point where it is too late. “I created the Parachute Project with the idea, maybe we can catch them early enough, to challenge them to start to be introspective now.”

Rhodessa Jones 31 July,2015Spark
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Related Episodes


Art Frees the Soul

See how art can be the force that heals in times of trouble.


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