I need you, you need me. We’re all a part of God’s body. Stand with me ... I need you to survive.”
Alma, a 37-year-old woman with compassionate eyes and smooth skin, stood on the chapel stage of the Dwight Correctional Center in central Illinois singing these words, written by composer Hezekiah Walker. It was the second performance of an original play called Phenomenal Women: Our Past Does Not Reflect Our Future, created by nine incarcerated women. Alma sang to her fellow inmates sitting in the audience on wooden pews, looking at them with deep love, offering the gift of herself. She seemed full of confidence and radiance. Having directed the play, I sat in the front row, feeling gratitude and wonder wash through my spirit.
Later that day, I read a newspaper article about our performance, which included interviews with the actresses. When I direct performances, I never ask the women why they are incarcerated, so I was astonished when I read, halfway through the article, “... Alma Durr, who said she accidentally shot her son when she attempted to take her own life.” Tears streamed down my face.
Months later, I sat with Alma in the solarium of the correctional center. The room was full of windows letting in midday light. We spoke about her childhood of sexual abuse, her life of prostitution, and her past addiction. But we also spoke about that second performance, when she sang with such joy. “I’ll never forget how beautiful you were,” I said. She smiled and said, “You know, you say that but I never felt that way in my life. But that day I did feel beautiful. I felt like I was on top of the world.”