Once upon a time, there was a queen bee who lived in a hive of familiar bees, full of sweet, sweet honey flowing here and there…seemingly never ending. But one day, things turned for the worst. All of the honey that was produced was taken away by unwelcome strangers. Frightened by what might become of their hive, the colony began to panic, swarming here and there frantically. Honey was key because it was used to sustain the hive over the colder months. How would they be able to survive now?
Just as it seemed their hive might perish, the Queen Bee took charge. First, she ordered half her hives to go out and get food to produce honey. Then, she had the others restore the damages the unwelcome visitors had caused. Sooner than expected, they had produced enough honey to last the entire upcoming winter.
Take a look at these three ladies above. Let their faces burn into your memory, see their smiles, and the happiness in their eyes. What if I told you they are incarcerated and are currently on work-release (allowed a brief time outside jail)? You might be thinking, what are their crimes? If I told you, would you think lesser of them than just strangers in a photo? Would you compare their crimes, judge them, and justify their punishments because of their wrongdoing? As they say, a photo is worth a thousand words, and I am not writing this to sway you one way or another.
Today, I have been fortunate to spend 5 hours with these three ladies and other amazing individuals (others on work-release as well) participating in playback theater. Playback theater is exactly what it sounds like, but more explicitly, it is when performers “play back” a story shared by an audience member about a specific event in their life (based on a given scenario). What’s great about this kind of performance is that it is an on-the-spot, impromptu performance. The beginning of this blog is a playback story based on an experience shared by one of the ladies above. It illustrates someone taking charge of a situation that she might normally hesitate to react in. Courage, resilience, and leadership all play a part in setting the tone for this person’s actions.
I was invited to this event by Bonnie Winfield, not knowing exactly what I was getting myself involved in. In the beginning, I found myself sitting in a circle of people (all strangers but one of my residents), sort of what an AA meeting would look like. I was among an alcoholic and many “criminals”. I felt nervous, uncomfortable and alienated, but I was used to this.
We started with a few exercises that required us to work in pairs. After the first couple of exercises, I was starting to run out people to work with and soon I would have to work with one of the work-release participants…and I did. Nikki was the first person I worked with; I was a sculptor and she my would-be sculpture that had to represent the feeling of anger.
Man, was I uncomfortable. She’s just another human being, I would tell myself until I was comfortable enough to initiate a simple “Hi, my name is Kofi.” Moments later, I was sculpting, instructing Nikki to move this way and that, without hesitation. At the end of it all, I felt a connection with Nikki; a mutual relationship was formed in that brief moment of working with one another.
Furthermore, during lunch, I decided to talk to Debbie, just to get to know her. We talked for such a long time, sharing life experiences, failures, and disappointments. She is such an interesting person that in talking to her and hearing about why and how she got to where she is, I felt empathetic because she really didn’t deserve to be in her current situation.
I share all of this because in those 5 hours I spent doing what I did, I experienced a paradigm shift. We all know how easy it is to judge people based on what we have heard about them, but it’s equally easy to change how we think of that person by getting to know them. Sometimes, especially in this kind of situation, it is hard to allow ourselves to be wrong. I am more than happy to have proven myself wrong by getting to know these individuals. I hope to continue to have these kinds of experiences, to be able to prove my preconceived notions wrong and to acknowledge people for who they want society to see them as.