Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, the Margaret Bundy Scott Professor of Comparative Literature, presented her paper, "Liberating Medea: Political Theater," in a Faculty Brown Bag talk on February 1. In her talk, Rabinowitz discussed the political implications of the Medea Project, a prison-education initiative that encourages female prisoners to use Euripides' Medea to develop a sense of personal agency.
Rabinowitz commented on the value of classical tragedy to today's culture, saying, "Working on Greek tragedy [with a political frame of mind], I'm constantly asking, 'What's in it for us?'" Classical plays, she said, are often used to help us think about problems in contemporary society. Typically, they are used to critique current politics and the problems of democracy. Rabinowitz introduced Rhodessa Jones's Medea Project as one way in which Greek tragedy continues reveal its utility for contemporary society.
Euripides' Medea, the Project's namesake, is particularly pertinent to the lives of prison women, as Rabinowitz emphasized. Medea tells the story of a woman who, after being betrayed by her husband, jealously seeks revenge and kills her husband's new lover. Then, to retaliate more fully against her husband by killing everything dear to him, she stabs each of her children as well. Based on this framework, Rhodessa Jones focused on how prison women are each essentially killing their children, whether through their own drug or alcohol use, or simply through being incarcerated. She asked her participants how they are different from Medea, and with their responses in mind, the women each wrote their own versions of the story.
The Medea Project suggests, for Rabinowitz, the liberating potential of the play in prisons. "Behind the project is the belief that education and literature can change lives," she said. The Project results in a public production of a play staged by the female prisoners. Participating in theater, Rabinowitz said, allows the women to experience being part of a group. Moreover, the public production helps temporarily to blur the distinction between those who are inside and outside the prison world.
In a video clip that Rabinowitz showed of a rehearsal for a Project play, Rhodessa Jones, speaking to the prison women, says, "Find a character for yourself; who are you?" In effect, the Medea Project presents an opportunity for prison women to realize their own identities, recognize their own power, and further, to recognize the power of other women. Modern Medeas, those women in the prison system, must learn to find their own escape routes. Ultimately, the Project's mission as Rabinowitz relayed it is to prevent women from returning to jail by helping them to realize their own agency.
The political power of these theatrical representations extends even farther, though, as Rabinowitz emphasized. She noted that "the most radical political potential [of the Project's plays] is to involve women on the outside who have more power" than the women on the inside of the prison system.
-- by Sarah Lozo '06