[THE GEORGIA INCARCERATION PERFORMANCE PROJECT]
A Devised Archives-to-Performance Hyper-Collaboration
Between Spelman College and the University of Georgia
Role: Co-Project Director
[The Georgia Incarceration Performance Project] is a first-of-its-kind, cross-institutional collaboration between faculty, students, alumni, and archivists at Spelman College and the University of Georgia (UGA) to co-create an original live production on Georgia’s carceral history using archival material and embodied memory.*
In the Summer of 2019, UGA's Hargrett Rare Books & Manuscript Library premiered a new archival exhibit on a gripping piece of Georgia’s history: “the forced labor of prisoners in Georgia from the start of the convict lease system in 1868 until the abolition of the chain gang in 1945.” The timeliness and urgency of this exhibit, The New South and the New Slavery, were palpable at the time of its premiere and even now.
Inspired by the Hargrett Library’s exhibit curated by Sidonia Serafini and archival collections at Spelman, UGA, and in embodied memory, Spelman and UGA students (along with students from Morehouse College and North Carolina A&T State University participating under the auspices of Spelman College) created an original performance piece exploring this history and legacy. They collaborated with their faculty, archivists, professional artists, and incarcerated students in Common Good Atlanta courses to explore the question:
“What does incarcerated labor do to us?”
Members of the performing ensemble write down their reflections on their journey after the UGA production run.
Our Process: Devising an Archival Production
Rather than beginning with a script, devised theatre is built on improvisations with the performing ensemble--in our case, surrounding the archive: materials in UGA and Spelman's collections, our embodied memories, and the original creative and scholarly writings of Common Good Atlanta students. When encountering archival materials, we played with them: singing them, dancing them, acting them out, curating them through performance, and expressing them with our bodies, voices, media, music, design elements and artistry. Through community-based theatre techniques, we worked to explore our own relationships to the stories and voices held in the archives, and aimed to break the “fourth wall” between the audience and performances, in order to invite audiences to make the story with us.
By Our Hands premieres at UGA and at Spelman
The 90 min. live production -- officially titled by the script supervision team as [The Georgia Incarceration Performance Project] Presents: By Our Hands -- was developed as part of several courses in university curricula (Spring, Maymester, and Fall 2019) and in the 2019-20 production seasons of three departments: UGA Theatre, Spelman Dance Performance & Choreography, and Spelman Theatre & Performance. The production ran for four nights at each campus: at UGA in November 2019 and then at Spelman in February 2020. As a new work in development, we made changes to the production in its transfer from UGA to Spelman, incorporating feedback from Common Good Atlanta students into our creative process. Our aim for both audiences in Atlanta and Athens, GA was to leave with a deeper understanding of the histories and contemporary realities of incarcerated labor, and what this inheritance does and means to us all, as Georgia residents.
Honors and National Recognition
This Project gained national recognition when it was covered by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and then picked up by the Associated Press. The Project's Core Directing and ProducingTeam received a Joint Honorable Mention award from the National Council on Public History for 2020 Outstanding Public History Project alongside UGA archivist collaborators and exhibit curator. At the Spelman Theatre Awards celebrating the 2019-20 production season, [The Georgia Incarceration Performance Project] Presents: By Our Hands received the awards for “Best Show” and “Best Ensemble”.
What's Next? Plans for Fall 2020-Spring 2021
The Project Directors envision multiple paths to amplify the project’s impact and reach. First, we aim to continue collaborating with multi-disciplinary digital artist Kimberly Binns on postproduction of the video footage documenting the UGA and Spelman dress rehearsals and full-length performances, as well as participants' experiences in recorded interviews. We anticipate a period of reflection and consultation with archivists, digital humanities experts, artists, and colleagues to brainstorm and develop the best format(s) for public distribution of the project (e.g. digital humanities website, dance-for-camera virtual performances, written publications, etc.). We also anticipate navigating legal considerations and licensing/permissions for the final publicly released format of the project. Finally, we already have received suggestions/requests for additional possible next steps, for audiences and institutions like such touring the production or excerpted scenes and conducting workshops about our collaborative process for other artists, educators, and public humanities colleagues. All of these possibilities reaffirm the significance of the project’s work and this historic collaboration between our universities.
SNAPSHOT OF COLLABORATORS
The Project brings together a diverse constellation of people and entities around the Georgia incarceration story to have a conversation, engage ethically, and learn from this history and its impact on our everyday lives. The Project is co-directed by: Professor Keith Arthur Bolden (Spelman - Theatre & Performance), Dr. Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin (UGA - Theatre and Film Studies/Institute for African American Studies), Dr. Julie B. Johnson (Spelman - Dance Performance & Choreography), Dr. Emily Sahakian (UGA - Theatre and Film Studies/Romance Languages), and Professor Kathleen Wessel (Spelman - Dance Performance & Choreography); and developed in partnership with archivists at Spelman College and UGA Special Collections Libraries (Chuck Barber, Jan Levinson Hebbard, Jill Severn, and Mary Miller); other professional collaborators, including Dr. Barbara McCaskill (Creative and Co-Executive Producer), Dr. Steve Soper (Course Collaboration at UGA), Dr. Caroline Young (Course Collaboration - Common Good Atlanta), Dr. Lauren Neefe (Common Good Atlanta), Dr. Ruthie Yow (Course Collaboration - Common Good Atlanta), Angela Hall (co-script supervisor); Charmaine Minniefield (visual media designer), Erwin Greene of eGreene Designs (lighting designer, co-sound designer and co-sound engineer), Diana Norton-Bagwell (co-sound designer and co-sound engineer), Deborah Hughes (costume design - "Bones" and "Joker" characters), Okorie OK Cello (composer - musician), CC Sunchild (composer - musician), Munir Zakee (composer - musician), Kimberly Binns (guest artist - filmmaker), Andre Allen of Blacklight Productions (production management), Dr. Nouhr-Dine Akondo (creative consultant), Morgan Hawkins (Co-Project Manager), and Taylor Wood (Spring 2019 Phase I Artistic Facilitator and Teacher); a performing ensemble of 28 students; 4 graduate students in creative leadership roles as designers and co-script supervisor, a stage management team of 5 students; more than 48 student-participants and contributors in Phase I of the Project (Spring 2019 courses - preliminary archival and embodied research); 20 student-participants and contributors in Phase II (May 2019 devising workshop), and dozens of student-led production crews at Spelman and at UGA.
Funders and Sponsors
This project is generously supported, from Spelman College, by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Department of Dance Performance & Choreography, and the Department of Theatre & Performance. From the University of Georgia, it is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through the Global Georgia Program of the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, a Faculty Research Grant from the Office of Research, by the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, the Institute for African American Studies, the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, the Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection, the Ferman Fund, the McCay Fund, the Franklin Excellence Fund, and the Office of Service Learning. Additional sponsors of this production include: the Atlanta Film Festival.
*The Description of this Project is co-authored by the Directing Team and includes excerpts from the official production program and other co-authored writings.
© 2021 by Dr. Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin.
The term scholartist is credited to performance studies colleagues Joseph Shahadi and Mila Aponte-Gonzalez.