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Presenting artistic pathways for regaining self-worth

Sun, 31 Mar 2013 19:19:00
Article by:
Julie McCoy
Rhodessa Jones and Idris Ackamoor performing in The Love Project, 2009.
Women who have been incarcerated and women who are living with HIV are putting their drama into a drama.

    The San Francisco-based Medea Project enables women who are former inmates as well as HIV-positive women to tell their stories and express the pain, anger, guilt, depression and self-hatred they feel in a healthy way, through performing arts, including theater, music and dance.

    The Medea Project helps these women get in touch with their feelings and enables their voices to be heard. It honors these women and gets them to honor themselves.

    “These women need to be assured that they are part of the community of humanity,” stressed Rhodessa Jones, director of the Medea Project.

    Jones noted, “I have never been afraid of people. I have always been interested in people. I have that gift of helping people tell their stories.”

    The Medea Project performs at university campuses such as San Francisco State, as well as at health summits and forums. The group has performed not only in San Francisco, but in other parts of the country, including Washington, D.C.

    Marlene S. [who asked that her full last name not be revealed] learned she had HIV in July 2009 and became involved with the Medea Project in approximately September 2009. Her doctor knew about the Medea Project and referred her to it.

    “I came having no idea what expect,” Marlene S. said, noting she thought she could handle her HIV diagnosis on her own. She really liked all the women she met. “I thought they were wonderful,” she said. She was not used to talking about herself to strangers, so it took some time to get used it, she admitted. “I really started loving it and I opened up a little more,” she said. “It was my own healing.” 

    The Medea Project helped Marlene S. get in touch with things that had happened to her in the past that she had suppressed. “The things that were locked inside me started coming out,” she said. “I started writing about those things. It was a healing process for me. “

    Marlene S. regards the other women in the Medea Project as family. “That’s my family,” she said. “The women are my family. We hang out even when we don’t have rehearsals.” By telling her story, she hopes others will now come forward, she said. Thanks to the Medea Project, this past June the 36-year-old was finally able to tell her parents that she had HIV, which she probably wouldn’t have otherwise done. “I have such a huge wonderful support system,” she said. 

    Marlene S. further noted, “The biggest problem about HIV is the stigma. It’s not the medication. If you take medication, you’re going to be fine. The word HIV has such a darkness to it, because people associate it with prostitution, drugs and homelessness. It’s really about getting the word out and educating people.”

    Paulina Smith, a local artist, became involved in the Medea Project about four years ago as an artist who was interested in doing art for social change and has been involved with the organization ever since. 

    “It has connected me very deeply with women of all backgrounds,” Smith said. “We learn what it means to be a powerful, strong woman with integrity. Rhodessa always says telling the truth saves lives – including our own. That is something I will always live by.”

    Smith further said, “As a group, as a collective, we all share our stories. So many people have been living in silence for so long. That’s how we begin to break these chains of abuse, domestic violence, incarceration and prostitution down.” 

    Lisa Frias — who has danced in the Bay Area since 1988 and teaches dance and social studies in Daly City — is a choreographer for the Medea Project. “The most compelling thing is art saving people’s lives.” she said. “We all have our own lives to save, our own truths to tell, and we all have to be willing to have a mirror held up to us and look in the mirror. It’s about bringing about the dancer in everyone. We all have movement in us. We just have to awaken it. It’s a whole lot of truth telling. It’s a whole lot of processing. We’re a theatre company and support group. Sometimes during a rehearsal, we end up talking the whole time because that’s what needs to happen. Rhodessa is an amazing director. It’s a real sisterhood. The things we are ashamed of, we put it out there.” 

    Frias also noted, “You have to take leadership. Be 100 percent. We’re intense. We’re loud. We’re there for each other. I’m around women who have amazing talent.” Her involvement with The Medea Project has enabled her to grow as a human being and a performer. “I’ve grown as a person, as an artist, a dancer, a singer,” she said.

    Since last spring, The Medea Project has worked on a production titled “Birthright,” which is being done in conjunction with Planned Parenthood.

    In 2010, the Medea Project also did a performance called “Dancing with the Clown of Love — Living With AIDS in the 21st Century,” in collaboration with the Women’s HIV Program at the University of California San Francisco.

    Edward Machtinger — professor of medicine and director of the Women’s HIV Program at UCSF — said the clinic provides child care, breakfast, social workers, case managers, HIV specialists and pharmacists, but despite the clinic’s help, HIV-positive women were still struggling. Many were still not taking their medicine, suffering from mental illness and committing suicide. He had heard of Jones and the Medea Project and decided to give her program a go.

    The Women’s HIV Program continues to partner with Jones and the Medea Project. The women from the HIV program who participate in the Medea Project are more engaged in their care, more engaged in the community and overall happier, Machtinger said. 

    Machtinger described the collaboration as “the single most fulfilling experience in his professional career.” Jones is “a lioness. She’s wild and a dreamer and very positive,” he said.

    The Medea Group’s first performance, when the organization started 25 years ago, was titled, “Reality is Just Outside the Window.” 

    The Medea Project is part of Cultural Odyssey, an African American performing arts organization started by Idris Ackamoor, who is a shaman, tap dancer, jazz musician, writer and producer. 

    Together, Ackamoor and Jones have traveled around the world, making art that is rooted in Ackamoor’s practices and that pushes the boundaries of traditional arts in theater, music and dance. 

    Jones is no stranger to the performing arts. She grew up in a family of performing artists. Her mom was a gospel singer, and her brother wrote a play. Her family was poor and did not have television, so “we always entertained each other,” she explained. 

    How does the Medea Project operate? 

    The Medea Project earns income from performances. It also receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Irvine Foundation, the Grousbeck Family Foundation, the Lia Fund, the Hewlett Foundation, the Zellerbach Family Foundation, the San Francisco Grants for the Arts Hotel Tax Fund and the San Francisco Arts Commission. 

    How did the Medea Project get started?

    Jones said that she was working with the California Arts Council to go into jails and teach aerobics. “I was amazed so many were there,” she said. “They didn’t want to do aerobics. They’re depressed. They’re bored. A lot of them are mad as hell.” 

    Jones told the women about her daughter who had just gotten married. She also opened up and shared with them her own experience of looking for men in the wrong places. “The women were fascinated I was so open about my life that I would talk to them,” she said. 

    Jones said she chose the name The Medea Project from the story of Jason and the Argonauts. In Greek mythology, Jason and the Argonauts were famous for their quest to find the Golden Fleece. Jason was married to Medea, who killed her children to punish Jason when he left her for a royal princess. 

    The story of Jason and the Argonauts resonated with Jones because she had met a woman in prison who had killed her son, she said.

    For more information about the Medea Project, call 415-292-1850, email rhodessa@medeaproject.org, or visit the organization’s website at http://www.medeaproject.org.
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