Rhodessa Jones and The Medea Project: A Sisterhood of Healing

A Sisterhood of Healing
By Kim Christensen

Cast members of The Medea Project rehearse “When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon?” Photo by Tumay Aslay

Cast members of The Medea Project rehearse “When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon?” Photo by Tumay Aslay

Rhodessa Jones revels in the full range of her glorious womanhood. She’s the Great Mother, performer, artist, writer, creator and leader, healer and political activist. In touch with her sexuality and commanding others to delve and explore and demand their own pleasure. “It’s about the flesh, your flesh”, she says, and what happens to crack a woman’s soul when that flesh is violated.

Jones and her theater group The Medea Project are ready to reveal that and more in a new play “When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon?” at Brava Theater, October 25 - November 4, 2018 in San Francisco. The show explores the tragedy of domestic violence, digging into what it feels like to be abused, trapped, and betrayed by the person you once loved and trusted. It examines how the trauma of domestic violence sends out shockwaves that reverberate to negatively impact the family, community, and culture. The play asks how do we reckon with the damage and evolve our society to prevent this from happening in the first place?

As an artist and activist, Rhodessa Jones has been exploring the harsh realities of women’s lives for over 40 years. Looking for a path forward toward love, healing and social change, Jones carved one out herself by creating The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women. The project began at San Francisco County Jail in 1989. Jones was hired to teach Jane Fonda-style aerobics to incarcerated women to give them a healthy group activity. They were not amused and immediately shut down. 

Jones tried other techniques to get the women in touch with their bodies and emotions, to open up, as well as to build trust as their teacher. She started playing simple games, some familiar from childhood like ‘red light – green light,’ to cut through the tension and create a sense of play. Once they started moving their bodies, Jones found herself coming up with creative prompts and cues, like a theater director. 

While this was progress, Jones felt there was more to tackle, that there was a greater barrier and a deeper need among the women. The real hurdle was emotional as well as physical. It was the unearthed sexual violence and trauma experiences that most of the women carried around in their bodies and souls. That had to be dealt with and Jones helped them process that trauma in a tried and true method – a women’s circle. With a little more skillful prompting and encouragement, Jones witnessed the stories come pouring out of the women. A tsunami of pain.

While speaking out about previously unutterable crimes and experiences had some therapeutic value in itself, Jones recognized that there needed to be a next step to process and heal from these experiences. So the women began writing down their stories, editing and honing them, sharing them in front of the women’s circle, and ultimately turning their work into a group theater performance. That is how The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women was born. The troupe has been performing consistently for 29 years, both in jails and on the outside  at theaters around the country. 

Rhodessa Jones, Founder and Artistic Director of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, at the African American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco. Photo by Tumay Aslay

Rhodessa Jones, Founder and Artistic Director of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, at the African American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco. Photo by Tumay Aslay

The Medea Project performers are a mix of currently or formerly incarcerated women, professional actors and playwrights, and creative artists and souls who find themselves drawn in by the group’s unique artistic alchemy. The troupe meets at the African American Art & Culture Complex in San Francisco to rehearse and develop new material in their collaborative style. A magnet for free thinkers and spirits, The Medea Project attracts other artists and groups who want to blend efforts. 

Their new play, “When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon,” was created in collaboration with the Women’s HIV Program at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center. Jones has been working with the university program since 2007. Doctors and public health researchers saw firsthand that giving women with HIV medication alone was often not enough – they were still dying at higher rates than expected. They discovered that trauma - both physical and psychological traumatic experiences, some in the past and some ongoing – was often linked to how the women contracted the virus and the thing that kept their patients from making progress in their health and recovery. 

Searching for a therapeutic tool to help Women with HIV address unresolved trauma, the University researchers contacted Rhodessa Jones and The Medea Project. Jones brought in her theater program techniques and began working with women living with HIV. Creating a safe supportive space – a sisterhood – from which the women could then begin to process and share their stories of trauma proved to be life changing for many of them. It broke the stigma, silence and isolation that had kept many trapped in a spiral of despair. Jones knows from decades of experience that art, storytelling, and theater is good medicine and can save lives. 

The researchers at UCSF saw the potential of this therapy and conducted a study to analyze the impact of The Medea Project on women living with HIV. In addition to finding benefits to disclosing HIV status in this kind of supportive group, other positive “impact themes emerged from the data: sisterhood, catharsis, self-acceptance, safer and healthier relationships, and gaining a voice,” stated the report on the study led by Dr. Edward L. Machtinger and published in the Journal of Association of Nurses in AIDS Care in 2015. 

This latest performance piece marks the return of The Medea Project to Brava Theater, which hosted their acclaimed “Birthright?” play in 2015. The concept for “Birthright?” grew out of a series of conversations with Planned Parenthood. The play explores the relationships between sexual violence, trauma, rage, speech, healing, love and empowerment through access to women’s health care including birth control and abortion. The play became the focus of “Birthright? – The Documentary” a video produced and directed by Bruce Schmiechen, as well as a resource / discussion guide for public education purposes.

Rhodessa Jones is an artist who has invented her own therapeutic technique to help women work through trauma. Mining the pain by telling and crafting deeply intimate stories of experiences many assumed were too terrible to utter. Then sharing them with stunned audiences, resonating with souls in the seats, and wresting control and power over these experiences. Rhodessa Jones is designing new pathways toward self-love and healing through a sisterhood of support. 

Jones is generous and shares her techniques broadly, working with women in South Africa prisons, lecturing at universities, and collaborating with academics, physicians, and public health researchers. A San Francisco Bay Area treasure, this woman’s art and social influence are reverberating out across the globe. 

See Rhodessa Jones and The Medea Project perform “When Did Your Hands Become a Weapon?” at Brava Theater, October 25 - November 4, 2018 in San Francisco.