On a rainy afternoon in March, I met with Jo Kreiter, choreographer, artist-activist, and artistic director of Flyaway Productions, in a rehearsal space at Project Artaud, behind the Joe Goode Annex on Alabama Street in San Francisco. The cold, concrete space seemed ill-suited to dancers, but aerial artist Kreiter assured me, “It’s perfect for someone like me who’s not working on the ground.”
This was good news since not only was the floor made of joint-crushing material, it was almost entirely taken up by an enormous set, designed by Kreiter’s long-time collaborator Sean Riley: a 20-foot in diameter black clock face with a 20-foot scaffold rising from the center and three high metal chairs bolted to its surface. This set will be the focal point and moving surface of Kreiter’s latest project The Wait Room, which premieres in an empty lot near the Federal Building in San Francisco, one of the few remaining in a city overrun with construction.
The Wait Room, the first work in a trilogy of large-scale public art performances, addresses secondary incarceration, the emotional and economic toll that having loved ones in prison takes on women. Though Kreiter has made many works that address social issues close to her heart, this is her first work driven by an intimate connection.
Sima Belmar: What would you like people to know about this piece?
Jo Kreiter: This dance, The Wait Room, is the first in a trilogy of pieces that is part of a national wave of effort to end mass incarceration. So there is artist-as-activist intention behind its making. I think a lot of people don’t understand the phrase, ‘Gender justice means ending mass incarceration.’ Primarily incarcerated in this country are men, though the fastest rising category of people being incarcerated is women, primarily black women. But I am focusing the piece on women with incarcerated loved ones because [hands me a copy of a 2018 publication by Essie Justice Group (1)] the prison system expects women to do its dirty work and to mop up. By that I mean, it costs to be in prison: you have to pay for shoes, toothpaste, phone calls, money on your books (your books is your account in prison) if you want to be able to buy anything. So it’s women on the outside who have to hold that. I asked one of the women that we [Kreiter and composer Pamela Z] interviewed whose son is incarcerated, “What does it mean to be a black woman engaged with the prison system?” She said, “I feel like I’ve been financially raped.” That’s part of gender justice.
SB: So the process began with interviewing women with incarcerated loved ones. And you had your personal experience…
JK: …I had my story and then I connected up with Essie Justice Group and they’re partnering with us on the project. They facilitated our connection to a number of women that we interviewed whose stories are becoming the basis of the project. I’ve worked with oral histories often in the last twenty years, but the difference this time is that the story is also very much my own.
SB: And did it take time to arrive at the willingness to make a piece about something so close to you?
JK: Yeah, I didn’t envision that I would do this ever. I mean, even before my husband was incarcerated I was fully aware of the prison industrial complex and the growing numbers, so it’s not like the issue came at me from nowhere. I saw Keith Hennessey’s piece that he did about prisons, it was in the early ’90s I think, right when the prison industrial complex was really beginning to burgeon. He was so ahead of his time with that. So it’s not that I wasn’t aware of the issue, but coming into an awareness of how much it is a feminist issue is really what sent me over the edge into being willing to be public.
And then I found out about Essie, and because they have a Healing to Advocacy Model, because they recognize the pain and trauma that prison brings to families as well as the reality that the best people to advocate for its end are the people impacted by it, made it easier for me because now there was this container.
The other thing that made this possible is my husband came home. That stabilized my life a whole lot. Even though he’s on a long-term probation, so he’s still incarcerated statistically, I was no longer a single parent raising a child and running a dance company. That opened up some emotional space to allow for the process. When I had a sit-down conversation with Gina Clayton who founded Essie Justice Group, she said, “You have to be careful about how much you’re willing to say.” That’s been the hardest learning curve.
SB: What did she mean by that?
JK: There are a few things that happen depending on who’s interviewing you. Questions can be really invasive, questions can be based in a lot of ignorance, and then other questions are just fine questions but they push you into the emotional instability that is inherently a part of having a family member in prison. So those are the three things I’ve encountered in talking to funders, presenters, universities…
SB: …journalists? Did any journalists ask invasive or ignorant questions?
JK: No. Well, one of them asked something that I just deflected and said, That’s not something I’m going to answer for you.
SB: I can feel the desire in myself, in an embodied way, wanting to go down the path of the personal…
SB: Yeah, like a nearly tabloid, sensationalist version that says, yes, this is a larger social issue, but I want to know your story.
SB: And certainly journalists love those kinds of heart-wrenching stories. And at the same time, I’m thinking about what sorts of folks, maybe even in your own experience, are resistant to the project because they focus on individual crimes rather than the system.
It brings me back to the 1988 Bush-Dukakis debate when Dukakis was asked whether he would still oppose the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered.
JK: Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to reconcile accountability with the need to abolish mass incarceration. Especially with the #MeToo movement, there’s a deep desire for accountability for long-term misogyny acted out in rape and sexual abuse. That’s the subject of the third piece in the trilogy—restorative justice and really looking at this crux between accountability for violence against women and the realization that criminalization doesn’t actually curb violence. The second piece convenes Black and Jewish voices to do two things, to explore our shared history of race and capture, and to ask how can Jewish voices amplify the call for an end to mass incarceration.
SB: Tell me more about this set.
JK: We’re trying to conjure a room, the wait room. Chairs were the primary symbol for me of the quagmire that prison is because when I went to visit my husband in the second prison he was in, you had to sit side by side and there were three of us. You couldn’t move. You couldn’t stand up. So it was very hard to talk to each other.
SB: So it wasn’t across a table or through plexiglass with telephones the way you see in movies.
JK: No. It was just really uncomfortable. I’d get yelled at for folding my legs up and doing what dancers do when we sit. All the dancers were like, “I would never make it! I never sit in a chair normally.” So chairs were the focus, but so is instability. And so the set that you see—it’s actually at rest at the moment, it’s charging—has a motor in it, so it rises and tilts and coins.
JK: You know, like when you spin a coin and it does this [gestures the wobble when a spinning coin begins to lose its momentum]. So we got the metaphor of instability inside the engineering and design.
SB: The word coining evokes keening for me, like a ritual term of mourning. And the clock face?
JK: Waiting. The brutality of waiting. Sometimes it is interminable. Some of the women we interviewed have loved ones dealing with a life sentence. I don’t know what that’s like. My husband served a relatively short time but it was always up in the air. There’s a plea deal, so there’s a range. And then the judge sets a time but there are options on top of that. You get what’s called “good time,” and then there are other options that affect time. And every stage of option was filled with trauma.
SB: I’m really interested in this chairs conversation, the side-by-side seating. Did you get any information about the rationale for that choice?
JK: There’s no plan. I think you can fit more people that way. That might have been the architect’s rationale. I don’t know.
SB: Could you turn in your seat? Could you put your arms around each other?
JK: It depended on who was on duty. The corrections officers are inconsistent in how they enforce the rules and what kind of attitude they have. There were times when I could stand up or my son could come sit on the floor. There were times when that wasn’t allowed. There’s a little more flexibility with children because they’re just so squirmy. And at times not.
SB: Did you have conversations with your husband about the way incarceration affected the choreography of his body, and if so, is that coming into the work?
JK: This project is not about my husband in any way, shape or form. It’s about proximity. It’s about being asked to be in collusion with a system that’s simultaneously bringing you down and that’s a very uncomfortable place.
SB: So what’s the practice in the room with the dancers?
JK: I designed a series of questions for the interviews and they have become the frame of the piece, negotiated by some logistical issues around what has to follow what in terms of the set design. The set has a pathway where it starts in stillness and gets activated and animated with motion and physics, so there’s a certain physics logic that we had to go with that determined some of the ordering of the questions. But the questions really determined the arc of the piece. And more than the questions, the answers determined the arc of the piece. Like there were things that I didn’t realize I was going to make into a section until I heard the answers. One of those things is about the criminalization of the black body. All the black women that I interviewed spoke about that in terms of their own lived experience in proximity to prison. And I would say that when you go to prison as a visitor, they treat you like you’re in prison. I have had my own experience of being subject to harsh and dehumanizing control in the six hours that I was there. For example, you have to keep two feet on the ground when you sit in the chair. Things like that add up for the visitors. Imagine how they add up for the people who are there 24/7.
SB: What kind of questions did you ask?
JK: Gina Clayton wrote an article called, “The Question that Silences Women (2),” and the question she names is, “What did he do?” If you ask women that question it shuts us down. There’s an unspoken code in the reentry and abolition communities that you never ask that because that’s not the main issue. But for me the question that silences is, “Why do you stay?” I think that every woman has a question that silences her.
I asked the women we interviewed, “How is your story a love story?” Because I think it’s really important to see that as we are loving our incarcerated loved ones, we’re also deep in the fight. It’s not a passive love. You have this “stand by your man” ideal, this assumption of passivity, and that’s really not the case in my experience. You can’t be passive and make it through this.
SB: You’ve been making work for a long time. What tools from prior projects are still in play and are there new ones based on this project?
JK: Well, in terms of tried and true tools, and collaborators (3): I’ve worked with Riley for fifteen years, and Pamela Z and I first started working together in 1996. I loop back to working with her every few years. Because she works with text as sound she’s an awesome collaborator when I’m trying to tell a story that has a political point. I present her with all the politically pointed things that someone has said. I comb through the interview tapes and I say, “From second 16 to minute 3.6, that’s the point.” And then she’ll take three words because she’s listening for something different, she’s listening with a formal ear. And she certainly understands the politics. And so we challenge each other that way because I give her the opportunity to work on political point and she gives me the opportunity to expand my formalism. It’s a lovely collaboration.
New for me is designing a stand-alone set that does not use a wall or a ceiling, that’s not dependent on a specific piece of architecture. I think one of the things that excites me about this project is bringing in the prison abolition community because I think there’s really great performing arts happening around this issue but I don’t think there’s a lot of public art happening that is free and accessible and located in proximity to the Federal Building, UN plaza, and the buildings that represent the prison industrial complex. I really wanted to tour this piece because mass incarceration is a national crisis and I wanted the opportunity to perform in proximity to courthouses and prisons all over the country. We’ve made that a little bit of a reality in that we’re doing the piece here [in SF] and we’re doing it next to the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond [May 16-17], inside the “Iron Triangle,” where there’s a high rate of violence, a very high rate of incarceration. I’m excited for that proximity to the problem. And then in September we’re performing it literally right next to the walls of Sing Sing prison [in Ossining, NY]. So my dream is coming true a little bit.
SB: What about dance? How does it serve this political issue, these stories?
JK: So the question for me always is how to make physical a concept, an idea, a desire for action. For me this piece lends itself well. In terms of aerial dance and this topic, there is a vision of the walls coming down, a vision of flying above the walls, and that was very easy for me to take on with this particular set.
To visit a prison is to participate in a ritual, and ritual and dance are very connected. You have to wake up really early in the morning. It’s always cold because you’re waiting outside in a parking lot. It’s always dependent on orders from the corrections officers that change every time you go. There are certain things you can and can’t wear. I was turned away because my pants didn’t have a zipper and a snap. That was not allowed.
SB: And there was no explanation.
JK: No. That’s just the rule. And my son was turned away for the same reason. He was seven at the time. So a lot of people are turned away. Some facilities have a clothing bank where you can go and choose something else. That wasn’t true in federal.
SB: How do you see the political and the formal coming together in this piece?
JK: Because I’m on a very different kind of set I feel like I’m in new territory with this question of abstraction, metaphor, and representation. The set is slightly space-aged looking.
SB: It reminds me of Elizabeth Streb.
JK: And the piece is nothing like that. Moments might be…
SB: …well you have to pass through what she’s passing through because you’re both dealing with physics…
JK: …and a stand-alone, something that could be taken apart. I remember talking to Elizabeth and asking, “You built this stand alone set; what do you have to say about it?” And she said don’t ever do it. And here I’ve done it.
- Gina Clayton, Endria Richardson, Lily Mandlin, and Brittany Farr, PhD (2018) Because She’s Powerful: The Political Isolation and Resistance of Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones. Los Angeles and Oakland, CA: Essie Justice Group. Find out more about Essie Justice Group at essiejusticegroup.org.
- Brittany Farr (2016) “The Question that Silences Women: An Interview with Gina Clayton, Founder and Executive Director of the Essie Justice Group,” Souls, 18: 2-4, 459-462.
- The Wait Room features dancers Bianca Cabrera, Clarissa Dyas, Laura Elaine Ellis, Sonsherée Giles, MaryStarr Hope, and Megan Lowe; lighting design by Jack Beuttler; and costume design by Jamielyn Duggan.