The playwrights of “From the Inside Out” are a unique group of women. They are not professional storytellers.
Neither do they hold degrees in creative writing. They are not composers, poets or painters.
They are 12 women, clad in yellow, behind bars at Northwest Arkansas Community Correction Center.
And tonight, their story is being heard.
With the aid of three local women, KathyMcGregor, Katie Nichol and Erika Wilhite, the tragic, harrowing and inspiring life stories of these women are being told through the mouths of professional actors. These personal explorations of the past are presented by the Northwest Arkansas Prison Stories Project, a not-for-profit organization created to empower women from the center as they make the transition from incarceration to liberation.
“It bridges the gap between the inmates and the community that they will be returning to,” says McGregor.
Although no two stories are the same, most have one common theme: child abuse. Coming from her own difficult beginnings, director McGregor understands the importance of healing.
“I came from a fractured childhood. The thing I’ll never know is why didn’t I end up in prison?”
How these women ended up in prison is the focus of their healing process.
“The women are learning why these things happened,” says creative writing director Katie Nichol, “and why they reacted the way they did and how it affected their decisions.”
“It makes them connect to their past,” says McGregor. “Bad choices were made for them, and now they have to break the cycle of abuse.”
Tonight’s presentation is a montage of songs, visual arts, photography and poetry created by the 12 women and collected and compiled by theater director Erika Wilhite.
A unique gallery opens the production. The 12 women themselves will meet the playgoers through portraits taken at the prison, says McGregor. This is a rare look at the faces of inmates so physically removed from the thoughts of the community.
Alongside these photos are their life maps.
“Their life maps are a testament of where they came from and where they are going,” says McGregor. They chart the struggles and events that led to the women’s incarceration. The maps are revealing to both the artist and those who view them, says McGregor, adding, “It’s very empowering.”
Along with the life maps, playgoers will have the chance to hear directly from the playwrights through five actresses.
The finale of the show will include a reading of actual transcripts recorded during interviews with the playwrights.
The readings will be portrayed by the actresses as honestly as they can be, says Wilhite.
The interviews document the women explaining their life maps. Although traumas scar their lives, the transcriptsreveal the healing process each women has undergone, says McGregor.
The production will be aided by a large screen with titles and lines from the poetry to guide the audience, says Wilhite. “These are place markers.
They’ll help (the audience) follow the journey.”
The performance will come to a hopeful end this evening, says McGregor, highlighting how the fractured life stories of these women are being repaired. But it is not the end of the road for the 12 playwrights featured in the show, and it is not the end of their healing.
According to McGregor, though their lives have changed, the healing has just begun.
“Now they have to keep these stories changed.”
The Northwest Arkansas Prison Stories Project is part of the prison ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
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