Theatre as Healing for Formerly Incarcerated Woman

Community worker and artist Amina Mohamed sits down with artists Charlene Chapman, April Labine and Laverne Malcolm to reflect on the roles art can play as healing for women with lived experience of incarceration. They reflect on their shared experience working on Confluence Arts Collective’s original play The Countess and Me, and discuss what they think prisons are, are not, and could be.

My name is Amina Mohamed, and I’m a member of Confluence Arts Collective, as well as the Women’s Community Coordinator at PASAN: an organization that provides education, advocacy, and case management for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people living with HIV/AIDS. I also have lived experience around incarceration in my family and in my community: I am a Somali woman living in Toronto, where our community is overly policed and overly incarcerated. My younger brother is currently incarcerated and serving a life sentence. The work that I do in community is pivotal to my own life.

I’m an artist with a varied practice — I’m a DJ, an organizer of queer community spaces, and I have long history of participating in theatre, film, and community arts projects as a writer, performer, and facilitator. Confluence Arts Collective was founded in 2017 by a group of community-engaged artists in Ontario, and I joined as a core artist-facilitator shortly thereafter. Here’s a bit about how we describe ourselves:

Confluence Arts Collective came together over a shared investment in dignity, humanity, and justice for people experiencing, or who have experienced incarceration. Through artistic processes, Confluence strives to create moments of community convergence, self-determination, and self-expression for criminalized people. We recognize that criminalized people are disproportionately those living in poverty, Indigenous, racialized, queer, transgender, women, and themselves victims of crime. We aim to open up humanizing spaces to explore and articulate who we all are outside of, and because of, criminal convictions, social marginalizations, and situations of incarceration.

I joined Confluence around the same time my brother became incarcerated. Confluence was my first experience collaborating artistically with incarcerated people, and this artistic work actually provided a lot of foundation for the community work I’m doing in my current job.

Through my position at PASAN, I was able to invite Confluence in to lead a theatre program for our community there. Fifteen women with lived experience of incarceration came together to make theatre. The inaugural Confluence/PASAN project included a collaboration with lemonTree creations and their production of Lilies; or, The Revival of a Romantic Drama (a co-production with Why Not Theatre and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). Through that project, we developed The Countess and Me, an original play created by the women at PASAN in response to Lilies’ themes of justice and care, based on the participants’ own stories. It was performed at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in May 2019.

For this article, I sat down with three artists from The Countess and Me – Charlene Chapman, April Labine, and Laverne Malcolm – to reflect on the power of theatre and art, the lived experiences of criminalized women, and how that project lingers with us today. Three beloved members of our community who were part of creating and performing The Countess and Me have since passed on: Brandi Nashkewa, Mona Farmer, and Marcia Riseborough. We honour and remember the three of them in these reflections.

As abolitionists, we believe that art can be a vehicle for social change, and can support individuals and communities with healing. That to me is one of the most beautiful aspects of Confluence.

Amina: Can you share a bit about yourselves?

April: I am a harm reduction worker and an outreach worker. I’ve worked at Fred Victor, Unison Health, and St. Stephens. I am an activist. I speak in regard to homelessness, mental health, addiction, and abused women, at events like Reclaim the Streets and Take Back the Night. I’m an ex-addict and I have lived experience of homelessness, addiction, abuse, and mental health issues.

Laverne: I’ve been living in Toronto since 2001, and a client of PASAN since 2012. I work in HIV/AIDS harm reduction with Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy. I was a prisoner, a long time ago. I am an ex-addict. The challenges I face now are with alcoholism but I’ve managed to kind of stay away, I’m very proud of that. I am a mother of four, a grandmother of six, and I am originally from Ebb and Flow First Nation in Manitoba.

Charlene: I come from north of Fort St. James. I am an Indigenous woman. With art, I love most to do bead work. I have four kids from age ten to fifteen, almost sixteen now. My spirit name is Red Bear.

Amina: I know creating and performing The Countess and Me was the first time each of you worked on a theatre project, but what has been your relationship to art more broadly?

Laverne: A lot of my art is hands-on. I do a lot of beading, dreamcatchers, ribbon skirts. Hands-on stuff helps me heal. It helps me calm my inner self, I can think a lot about things when I do what I’m doing – it’s like therapy to work with your hands.

April: I love to write. I love visual arts. I have been abused and I have a lot of shadows that I try to conquer, a lot of anger. My relationship to art is that it’s like therapy. It has healed many of my open wounds. It gives me opportunity to express myself. I enjoy doing it, it brings relaxation to me, it’s peaceful. I no longer feel overwhelmed when I express myself through art.

Charlene: I do a lot of beadwork, a lot of Indigenous art forms. I’m actually going to try to get into making moccasins – I didn’t have the patience before, but I believe I do now! I do too many beadworks every week, I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count it.

Laverne: She’s always online, beading!

Amina: Oh yeah, on Facebook Live!

Charlene: I don’t even talk, I just sit there and I bead. Now I am making earrings because the pow wows are coming up soon. My hands are getting sore from making earrings!

Amina: What was your relationship with art when you were inside? 

April: I did lots of art when I was in prison. Indigenous art like painting, drawing, beading, dreamcatchers, even headdresses. I have lots of artistic talents in different fields. Abstract art is the one I love the most, because there’s only one. It’s the original. Someone could try to copy it, but it wouldn’t be the same, it comes from your inner soul. When I was in prison, art got rid of a lot of my anger. I was in the penitentiary a long time so I had a lot of time on my hands. I had to make the best of it, you know? Instead of going on misconduct, I would get out the pencil crayons, or paints, or charcoal, and I would fill my cell with art, with the art that meant the most to me, that brought out the best in me. I would post it up on my cell walls, with toothpaste. I made the best of a bad situation. I was also able to sell some of my art through the years, and enter some of my art in contests. 

Laverne: You’re bringing back memories. You know what I used to do? The social workers would have these pictures, pictures of women doing things like snorting cocaine, drinking a beer. I would take a piece of paper and trace the picture, and colour them. I would make the whole scene on the paper. Then I’d put the start of a sentence: “I am…” and then I’d roll the paper and pass it to someone, like the person working the canteen. And then, she’d finish the sentence. We’d pass it all along the jail cells, and make a big blog. And at the end of the day we’d read it. It was just a thing we used to do, it was always so funny! We got in trouble sometimes. But it was art! We loved it. It was my art. 

Charlene: I did a bit of art when I was inside. I would always rather do the art. I would sit with just paper and pencil and sketch stuff out. It helped me to not get into trouble. I didn’t want to do that, I didn’t want to spend any longer in there. I stayed to myself and drew a lot of pictures. 

Amina: What was the most important part of The Countess and Me, for you? 

April: It was getting to know the other women, building relationships through theatre. After that show, we lost a few good friends, Mona and Brandi. It was a tough go when they died, but I was able to move forward, and I dedicated the further art projects we did to Brandi and Mona. 

Laverne: I think it was learning about how to do poetry. Simple as that. It’s really interesting how you can put words together and make it something beautiful. Mine was about how… I’m here but I’m not. That’s how I think about it. 

Charlene: The project was fun, it was fun to work with other women. For me, it was about learning how to build the inner self in me, in order to work with others. It was an amazing project. At the end, more than being friends, we became like family. We were like sisters, aunties. It was something new, for me. I’d never done theatre before. The best part was actually getting on stage and performing our play. That was a big step. 

April: It was great to be able to perform at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. I really enjoyed the experience of working on that show. It put me in a positive direction for maintaining my sobriety. It informed other things in my life where I made better decisions, continued a journey in a right direction. 

Amina: Yeah, it was the first project I did with you all, and I felt it allowed me to become more bonded and connected with you guys. We had a wild couple of weeks leading up to the performance! And yes, there were some huge losses. We all got the opportunity to really spend time with Mona and Brandi, thanks to the project, and I’m thankful for that. 

April: The theatre project had a huge impact on my life, to move forward to another part of my journey. It gave me the opportunity to express myself in a way that no one else can see me: through my eyes. 

Amina: What was it like to actually stand on stage and perform for an audience? 

Laverne: It was actually very exciting. I liked the fact that we were doing something positive, showing off our skills. I really enjoyed it. I was scared, nervous, excited. Everything was very flamboyant and nice. I enjoyed it. 

April: For me, I thrived on the not knowing. I’m here, I’m doing something positive, and I have an audience that can hear me express my feelings through art, through that play. We were able to express ourselves in a formal fashion, where we could actually enjoy what we were doing. Just being able to have that audience to listen to us, it made me so happy. Tears of joy for sure. 

Charlene: It was kind of scary but fun. I’d definitely do it again! 

April: And watching that other play, Lilies, that was a really huge story as well. It could speak to a lot of us who were in the theatre program: what it’s like being trapped, being caught between a relationship. It was like a reflection in a mirror. 

Laverne: They were really good actually, really good performers. And we did good too! 

Amina: We all often talk about how there are a lot of misconceptions about criminalized women. What is something about being a criminalized woman that is misunderstood? 

April: People don’t understand the poverty we live through and what actually leads us to criminal behaviour – lifelong abuse, mental illness, addiction, homelessness, the things that add up that lead to us becoming the women we are. We endure pain, and sometimes want to give back pain, we make bad choices. But the system fails to remember, we are all still human. You misjudge us, categorize us, stereotype us. There are so many artists within the system. People with so much talent, yet to be discovered. We never had the opportunity to show people that we can give anybody anything from our hearts. But look at me now, I’m a prime example. I’m a harm reduction worker, working at a safe injection site, working with other addicts – what I’ve been all my life. Now I have an opportunity to give back to the community. People need to see this. People that come from these walks of life, you can’t look down on us. We have voices. And our voices need to be heard. 

Laverne: When I first went in, there were a lot of things that were hard. Being criminalized, being an addict, having all these labels on you, having HIV as well, they gave me a hard time. They were also confused because I was in the Native circle and also following my Muslim religion. There were a lot of rules. I kept myself busy. I never had such an unlivable situation in my life, the eleven months I was there. The last thing an officer told me was “Oh, you’ll be back”. I said “I’m never coming back.” There are stereotypes in society: you’re a criminal, you’re an alcoholic, you’re a drug addict, you’re homeless, you’re a nobody, you’re not beautiful, you don’t stand a chance – those things follow you. Yes, I was a criminal, yes, I was an addict, but you shouldn’t label me. 

Charlene: Pretty much a lot of it is misunderstood. You’re labeled right away as soon as you come out. People think you’re no good, you’ll always be in and out of jail, you’re never gonna get work. Half the time people listen to it, and, whatever. The other half of the time, there are women who just brush it off their shoulder, they don’t listen to that crap. They go out there and do what they need to do: get work, get their education. That’s what it’s like for me. 

Amina: How has art supported you with your healing? 

April: It’s been able to get beneath my darkest shadows, things that I’ve hidden – not hidden, but things I’ve buried, that I didn’t want to deal with, that I suppressed. Now, the art allows my spirit to flow. It allows me to make better decisions today. At the same time, I’m finally free from those things I kept in the closet. Now, there’s nothing for me to regret, in life. Everything I did, there was a purpose behind it. Art has allowed me to move forward. 

Laverne: I write a lot. I journal a lot. I have 25 journals that I treasure. There are a lot of things I could write about. I’d become a journalist if possible! Art keeps me balanced. Whatever is inside art, it can make me balanced. Art for me is like therapy, yes. And when I’m not doing it, I’m a bad girl, like everybody else. 

April: And that’s okay. 

Laverne: That’s okay too, to be that way. 

Charlene: Art has supported my healing by helping me stay focused on something else rather than what I’m going through. It also helps for me to move forward – if I’m by myself, I do art. And if I’m not, if I’m around community, and family and friends, we can all heal together. 

Amina: Can you imagine a world without prisons? 

April: It would be a dream, right? As today is, no. I cannot. We need rehabilitation more than anything. We need plans for all people coming out of the system. Not to repeat the revolving door. It’s a system – you go away and then you keep going around and around and around, and there’s no end. It took 35 years of my life, the prison system. It didn’t matter what I did, I always came out with a crack pipe in my mouth or a syringe in my arm. And of course, prostitution, crime, it’s going to continue to follow. That shit is not going to change unless we make change. Sometimes I think it would be nice if we didn’t have prisons. But, you know what, sometimes the prison saves your life. You could have been in the morgue the week after, but you got arrested instead. 

Laverne: Sometimes, once in a while, when my life is chaotic, I think if I’m in jail I’d have calm. 

Charlene: There needs to be more programs and things inside of prisons to help people get their life on track, instead of living that life over and over, in and out of jail. 

Amina: The hope seems to be that a prison is somewhere where people can rehabilitate and return to society. From my perspective, and from what you are saying, prisons aren’t achieving that. What is something we can replace prisons with? 

April: Rehabilitation – they don’t achieve that whatsoever. Not even close. Some of the programs they offer, Substance 1, Substance 2, Anger Management, Psychology, all that shit they throw at you is a crock of shit. Anger Management made me so fucking angry. The lady facilitating it thought we were kids. “Colour the light, red, yellow, green.” Am I in Romper Room here? I’m a grown ass woman. You’re insulting my intelligence. I know the choices I made in my life. I know right from wrong. Some of the programs in jail degrade you as a woman, make you feel bad about yourself. Your self-esteem gets lower and lower and lower, until they got you trapped in a corner. I didn’t allow the system to conquer me that way. I got my diploma. I made many good strides. I honestly believe if there’s any rehabilitation done within the current system, it’s just because it came from the person themself. 

Laverne: When I was there, I found it to be a joke. They always say they want to rehabilitate you. But, you open my door, and close my door, you turn off the light, you turn on the light. You do everything for me, so what “rehabilitation” do I get? If I knock on the door, will you open it? No. And, I can’t open it myself because it’s locked. It’s a joke, when they say they are trying to rehabilitate you. I had no freedom in jail, nothing at all. They give you all these programs in jail, and what does it get you, when you get out? 

April: Same place where you started. 

Laverne: Exactly. I was back where I started: nowhere. I had to start all over again. Because those prison program documents, they aren’t going to come with me. It’s “not important” because you did it in jail, it’s not recognized as being a good thing. It won’t be any good when you come out. Jail is a joke, man. 

Amina: What do you think prisons should do for people? 

April: I think at best, prisons should help those who want to be helped. Don’t force it on people. Don’t force programs and say they are mandatory if you want to get parole. That’s the only reason we take them, we have to if we want to get out. I did what I had to do to get ahead. 

Laverne: I don’t know if anything can change, from going to prison. They have that mentality, we are all the same, when we walk in. “Do we need to help you? Why? You’re just going to go back and do the same thing.” When I went in, they didn’t give two shits about me, what my lifestyle was about, whether I had HIV, what kind of medication I needed. Prison is ridiculous. I met a woman who got convicted because she stole a chicken leg from the store. 

April: Shit. 

Laverne: She was trying to feed her family. Can you believe that? She got five months for that. 

Amina: I think a lot of things people are being incarcerated for are – 

Laverne: For no reason! 

Amina: Yes. They are things that could be solved within society. The issue there is poverty. 

Laverne: You know when you’re hungry, and you have to steal something to eat? I’ve done that. I’m not proud of it, but I was hungry. 

April: I think a retreat would be a good thing to replace prison with. A retreat on survival. That would be great for people who otherwise have to go to provincial jails. A retreat on how to conquer a lot of your worst fears, how to grow, how to find ourselves. 

Charlene: I would replace prison with school. Finish school, get my GED, try to get into college and university. 

April: Therapy is good, to an extent. It could be a catch-22. Say you had a bad day at therapy, and some bad things come out in therapy. You could come out and retaliate. You have to be ready and willing to face those demons. For me, art spaces as therapy, art-based therapy, is phenomenal. It’s taken all those dark demons that used to want to hurt other people in the community. Art has allowed me to look at life differently, to put my anger and creativity into something positive. I’m able to share that with the community today. 

Amina: I want to thank you three so much for your sharing, for your storytelling, and for participating. My last question is: What is a wish you have for a future world? 

April: I hope addicts, people who are homeless, people who suffer with mental illness, find light at the end of the tunnel. I hope they are able to find themselves, and to see that they are able to conquer anything they set their heart to. Change is possible. No matter how many mistakes you make, how many steps forward or backward you make, don’t give up on hope. There are people out there willing to help you. 

Charlene: Don’t judge people by their cover. Get to know them first. Understand where they are coming from. And hopefully people learn how to make better decisions in their life, and focus on a goal. 

Laverne: I think we should understand each other, where we come from. We always get pre-judged, right away. Whenever you meet people, or see them from a distance. People shouldn’t judge others. ‘Cause, God didn’t judge you. For a world that misunderstands addictions, alcoholism, homelessness, criminal activity. All these things, there’s a reason sometimes why people do them, and we shouldn’t judge people. We should just try to understand how they are. 

April: I think things like the Confluence theatre project need to go worldwide. It needs to get out there, so people can meet, can express ourselves in a way where we’re free, free of everything that brings us down. Our voices need to be heard. 

This article is based on a recorded interview and conversation led by Amina Mohamed with Charlene Chapman, April Labine and Laverne Malcolm in May 2022 at PASAN in Toronto. Transcription and editing by Nikki Shaffeeullah. 

Confluence Arts Collective was founded in 2017 by Jackie Omstead with Nikki Shaffeeullah and Lisa Bozikovic. Current and past collective artist-facilitators are Lisa Bozikovic, Fiona Raye Clarke, Jamie K., Carvela Lee, Amina Mohamed, Jackie Omstead, Sonja Rainey, Ashley Riley, Nikki Shaffeeullah, and Sasha Tate-Howarth.