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Democracy and Debate

Ashley Lucas: Storytelling for Social Change

Ashley Lucas, professor at the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, describes her personal experience with storytelling, especially as it relates to prison justice. Find out more here

Excerpt From


Hi, my name is Anita.
I'm here again with Ashley Lucas.
She's a performer and a faculty member in the Department of Theater and
Drama, as well as with the residential college.
Today we're going to be talking about her piece, her performance work.
And what she tries to engage and telling her own stories about what has happened to
her family in a way that promote social change.
Hi, Ashley.
>> Hi Anita, thank you for having me.
>> Sure, it's great to have you here.
I was thinking about you in storytelling and you do stories in two different ways.
You have Stories that you create with other people that are deliberately
designed to do social change and you also tell stories in your own way as an actress
and a performer and these are stories that you've created and are embodying yourself.
>> Well, the story of how I got involved in doing theater for
social change sort of leads into how I got involved in the prison creative arts
project here at the U of M.
So I'll start with my own personal history.
I was a theater kid growing up, always loved theater.
Started when I was in middle school and never stopped.
And when I was 15 years old my father went to prison in Texas and
he ended up staying for 20 years.
And during that time I didn't know an appropriate response to
a family member's incarceration.
It's a thing.
>> [LAUGH] Still inappropriate response.
>> Well that's part of the problem, right?
You're supposed to be ashamed of the person.
You're not supposed to want to talk about it.
It's supposed to be something that you spend your life hiding.
And my mother was always very open with me and we were able to talk openly.
We visited my father every month throughout those early years, which was
a lot of work because he was an eight hour drive away from my mother's house.
But we stayed in touch and we as a family, kept talking about it but the rest of
the world seemed very frightened if I told them that my father was in prison.
And often, if I wanted to talk about what was happening in my life other people
would end up crying and need me to comfort them.
[LAUGH] >> And you couldn't go on with the story.
>> Right and then there were people who were so
frightened of the idea of my father being in prison that other folks who
were in high school with me weren't allowed to come to my house anymore.
>> Mm-hm.
>> And there was this big social stigma attached to my father's incarceration.
And it didn't make any sense to me because my father is a beautiful human being and
he didn't stop being my father for one second throughout the events
that led to his incarceration and the 20 years that followed.
And the other thing that I really couldn't figure out was why the event that sent
him to prison was always so
much important to people than what happened to us as a family.
>> I see. >> Because how we experienced it as
a family lasted for 20 years and five months.
That's how long he was in prison.
And now, we're in this period of reentry, where he came home about four years ago.
>> Right.
>> And that's a much better story [LAUGHS] And much more impactful in my life, and
my mother's life and my father's life, than the tragedy that got him locked up.
>> Yes.
>> So I wanted to talk about my family, and I didn't know how.
And when I was in graduate school I had lived with for eight or
nine years with nobody to really talk to.
And then my father was denied parole for the third time.
He would ultimately be denied five times before they let him come home.
And every time, we were on the edge of our seats, we were ready to embrace him.
We planned a whole life that he would have when he came home.
And then, we were absolutely devastated.
And at that moment of his third denial of parole, I was studying people
like Anna Deveare Smith and Culture Clash who were doing ethnographic theatre.
A theater based on interviews with living communities.
>> And we're gonna be showing some of those pieces.
I think they may have seen them already.
>> Great.
That's helpful.
[LAUGH] >> Yes.
>> And it's really good work, too.
So I wanted to try to figure out how to talk about a community
that didn't acknowledge its own existence.
Because people who have family in prison often are not they're not well networked.
They're not seen as a group that has a common political experience or
social change experience or everyday life experience.
And yet all the people I ended up talking to when I started interviewing family
members knew some of the things that were most important to
my life that other people were totally unready to talk about.
Like what it feels like to enter a prison yourself and
know that you're temporarily incarcerated for as long as you're with your loved one.
>> Yes.
>> The fact that the prison was where I grew up.
Because that was the only place where I could put my family back together.
There was no other place where my whole family could gather.
So that prison was my home for as long as they held my father in a certain sense.
And knowing what those things mean to a person who's part of that kind of family,
was instinctual and intrinsic to all of these people who I was talking to.
They understood the expensive collect phone calls, and
all of these other life practices.
The journey to the prison, the being searched as you go inside,
that were really important to our quality of life.
And how we live every day even when we're not physically going to the prison.
My heart sat in that prison with my father.
And all these other people who I was talking to got it in ways that I was
really struggling to have that conversation with anybody else.
>> I see.
>> So, I will display to try to bring that community into a fuller
sense of being where we could see one another and identify one another.
And the place called Doing Time Through the Visiting Glass.
>> Wow, I love that title.
>> Thank you, [LAUGH] I wrote it in 2004 for
a theater Festival I thought I was going to in Mexico that ended up not happening.
>> So, it was a false deadline but it was great because I think I
could have been writing for years on end to try to make this play.
It's a series of 13 monologues and I play a series of people who
each have a different relationship to someone in prison.
>> Nice.
>> And I do it as a one woman show because I was broke and
couldn't hire a whole cast to perform with me, and
I really thought that it was just a graduate school project.
>> Yeah.
>> That I was gonna perform once in California where I was studying,
once in Texas where my mama was so that she could see it, and then the play would
drift quietly into the night and nobody would know that it had ever happened.
And now it's 2018 14 years later and am still performing, I'm performing at
Central Michigan University in April which is just a couple of months from now.
So everywhere I've done the show, there seems to be a need for it,
there's a need from other families to also have this conversation and so
I keep getting invited to do it again and again when I never anticipated that.
And I've never had an agent, I've never been a professional performer that's
just the artistic experience that's carried me through this journey.
>> It seemed one of the interesting things about that work is you're connecting
yourself to the storytelling to being able to influence other people,
so you, the audience, and then the story itself in pretty unique way.
The people who are taking this course are trying to figure out how they
can tell stories that will impact other people.
So you mentioned just now about how the audience's need to hear what
you're saying.
Can you talk a little bit more about audience impact of the work that you do?
>> Sure.
That's been the most powerful piece of this experience for
me across the more then a decade that I've been doing this show.
I really thought when I writing it, I was graduate student,
I'd never done a one person play before.
I'd been in lots of plays, but
I've never written one that saw the light of day outside of a play-writing class.
And it was an experiment, and I really thought it was for me.
It was about this pain of my father's parole denial, and
it was the thing that I needed to not be silent about anymore.
And I needed to find a way where I didn't have to be so responsible for
the conversation, and where it didn't have to be all about my father.
The story of my family is deeply embedded in the work, but
I didn't want to write an autobiographical piece,
I wasn't interested in telling our journey on it's own.
I wanted to know how I was connected to all of these other people.
So when I did it I really thought that I was just processing my own life
emotionally in front of an audience [LAUGH] In a certain sense.
I never do the show unless the place where I'm performing agrees to have
a conversation with the audience afterwards.
>> I see.
>> So after the cutting call the audience is in invited to talk to me, and to talk
to each other more importantly about what the the play brought out for them.
So one thing that struck me immediately and
has never changed is that no matter where I was, if I was performing in a prison,
clearly there were people there with ties to what I was saying.
But I could be in a very privileged space, and
there would still be people in the audience who had a loved one in prison.
There are more than 2 million incarcerated people in the United States right now and
mass incarceration is a global phenomenon.
I've never been anywhere and
even talked about the show where there weren't people who said, that's me, too.
That's my life.
That's my family.
So in certain places there have been much more emotional responses
to the discussion after the play than even to the play itself.
People passing around boxes of Kleenex.
And one performance a woman stood up and said I have five brothers.
And collectively they're serving more than 120 years.
>> Wow.
>> And that kinda thing, I thought I knew
something about what it was to be an incarcerated person's family member.
But I realized very quickly that with that many people locked up,
we do have a lot in common but
there are also many particularities of these experiences that I don't have and
that I don't represent, and that my play in its diversity can't begin to represent.
So the conversations with the audience have given people ways to begin
conversations with one another.
There were also people who I can't tell you whether or not they followed up or
any of their activists or community organizing instincts but
they're people who said to me that they wanted to start programs in schools where
they worked to help the children of incarcerated parents.
That they wanted to perhaps not in a community organizing sense, but
one of the most powerful experiences that I had where I thought I could see social
change happening was that when I lived in North Carolina, there were a series of
prison guard conferences that I got invited to, which was a total trip.
>> I was terrified in the beginning.
It was like walking into the enemy, into the lion's den, because these
were people who were paid to make sure that folks like my father didn't leave.
And what I realized in performing there was that people who work in prisons
feel just as stigmatized by incarceration as the people who live inside prisons.
The very first question somebody asked me when I performed at my first conference
for prison staff was, why do people hate us so much?
>> Wow, that's something.
So what you're saying really ties in to ideas we've talked about.
About empathy.
We start this course talking about listening to other people who
seem to be opposed to you and that's exactly what you're talking about now.
When you take a story that shows the perspective of the prisoner and
then present that story to the opposite people who are, the prison guards.
And I think that your work touches so closely on what we're trying to do with
thinking about how a story can change a perspective and can promote social change.
I mean the audiences don't have to be big is what you said and
they don't have to be who you expected them to be and yet
your work is able to change in ways that you could never have imagined.
>> Absolutely.
One of those people on staff at a prison who saw the show said to me in
the post-show discussion that she's the woman who answers the phone when
someone like my mother calls to check on their loved one.
Or to ask questions about visitation or things and that she used to try to give
as little information as possible and get off the phone as quickly as she could.
Or not even answer the phone, because those people calling were not folks that
she wanted to have to have empathy for in order to do her job in the prison.
She felt like these are people who are interrupting all the stuff I have to get
done at the prison.
And she just didn't want to think about who we were.
And that after seeing my play, she was going to answer the phone differently.
And that's one of the greatest compliments that anybody's given me in my life,
because even if she didn't commit to it and really do it.
If she treated one person differently then that makes a huge difference
to me even if I never get to see it or know how that played out.
>> Okay, we have to stop now, and partly because I'm so
excited to see the performance work.
So I thank you for coming with us today and I wanna hear more.
>> Thank you [INAUDIBLE].
>> Thank you, thank you.