One afternoon last week, in the gymnasium of the women's prison in Purdy, a few loudspeakers blasted TLC's 1994 hit single "Waterfalls"—a cautionary tale in verse about the perils of drugs, crime, and unprotected sex. A couple dozen women in gray, prison-issue sweat suits danced and sang along enthusiastically, their voices echoing off the walls: "Don't go chasing waterfalls/Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to..."
The song was part of the women's warm-up before Truth Flows Like Water: Transformations in Perdition, a play they had written over the past few months alongside teaching artists from Freehold's Engaged Theatre Program. The night before, they'd performed its world premiere for an audience of roughly 200 other prisoners at the Washington Corrections Center for Women—today's show was for around 60 visitors from "outside." We had been instructed by the Department of Corrections to bring nothing in our pockets except ID cards and car keys, which would be held at the front desk.
This was one audience with a zero percent chance of a cell phone going off.
Before the show proper, in a kind of performance-before-the-performance, a cheerful DOC press liaison named Melissa Johnson escorted a few of us around the grounds ("Walk with purpose," she instructed, but hardly anybody did), peppering us with facts: WCCW is one of two women's prisons in the United States with an extended family visiting program—up to 72 hours—but the good-behavior requirements are so strict that most prisoners can't take advantage of it. When children do visit, Johnson said, they're usually brought by "aunties" or other female relatives. The men in those situations, she said, "are pretty much nonexistent." The prison is severely overcrowded, with 850 to 900 "offenders"—the preferred term of DOC officials, though none of the visitors seemed comfortable using it—in a facility designed for 738. WCCW also grows 11,000 pounds of produce each year and has a service-animal training program, a braille transcription program, and its own steam plant. "We're like our own private city here," she said. "The superintendent is like the mayor, if that makes sense."
One of the visitors murmured that he hadn't seen so much razor wire since he'd worked on classified projects for the navy.
Prisoners filed past us in an open-air courtyard on their way to and from the dining hall, occasionally asking to have their pictures taken or exhorting us to "sit down and have a regular DOC meal—spaghetti tonight!" Johnson greeted one and watched her carefully as she walked away. That woman, she said, had just gotten out of "segregation" (relative isolation) after 11 months. But, she added brightly, prisoners in segregation can attend some classes if they sit in special chairs with restraints—chairs built by the women for Correctional Industries, a private company that employs prisoners to make furniture, mattresses, law-enforcement garments, and so on. (A recent Seattle Times series reported that Correctional Industries pays "as little as 55 cents an hour," giving it a competitive advantage some non-prison employers think is unfair.)
Back in the gymnasium, the audience sat in folding chairs as the women finished their warm-ups, waited through some introductions, and started the show. Truth Flows Like Water takes place in the town of Perdition, which has three populations: beaten-down residents, a pack of rebellious teenagers, and some cruel and capricious "elders" who keep people in line by threatening their families' water rations. The play is like a fragmented dream, toggling between the metaphorical town, stories from the prisoners' lives, fantasies about the future (one woman dreams of reuniting with her dad over dinner at the Space Needle), and snippets of social commentary, like a living newspaper.
Midway through, a furious Egyptian queen named Seta Hat conjures up visions of racial violence from the past and the future: the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., white police beating up Black Panthers and #BlackLivesMatter protesters, and the murder of America's first African American female president. She will, one narrator tells us, be "married to a white heart surgeon," love her "openly gay" daughter, and be shot shortly after her election in 2032.
"Don't you see?" Seta Hat thunders. "It's never going to change!"
"Your silence will not protect you" is Truth's thematic refrain—a few of its autobiographical vignettes are wry and ironic, but most are searingly earnest. One woman begins her story with "No one ever thinks of a drug dealer as a caring and compassionate person," introducing a scene in which she reluctantly sells drugs to someone in withdrawal, then turns away a mother who's gotten clean but feels the tug of relapse. "The second I see anyone with a way out," the narrator says, "their money is no good... I remind them of the reasons they have to stay clean and love them through their moments of weakness."
In what is probably Truth's most gut-churning segment, three women stand up to talk about the age when they were first sexually assaulted: 4, 10, and 15. The first was attacked by a group of kids inside a house. The second was scolded by her mother for having leaves in her hair. The third was raped by a male friend after coming out.
It might sound strange to say, but the audience applauded wildly after that scene. This wasn't the usual polite clapping to signify aesthetic approval; it sounded more like an acknowledgement—the audience telling the performers, and itself, that three people had just done something difficult.
During the talk-back, some of the women said they'd never told their stories before. Amanda Songer, a recently released prisoner, stood up to commend the women for their courage. "It's not a chunk of clay that touches people's hearts," she said. "It's the heart of the artist... Thank you, guys."
Freehold's WCCW program is more than a decade old, and Songer had participated in the writing workshops for five of those years, but she couldn't perform in the first two because she didn't have a sufficient good-behavior record. "Once I did," she said, "it motivated me to stay out of trouble. We built bonds in there, felt safe... It gave me so much happiness to be in that room, be whoever I wanted to be, do whatever I wanted to do, without an officer [guard] saying, 'You can't behave like that!' I could go in there and be silly, talk, cry, whatever I wanted to do. It was a kind of therapy, better for me than the therapist."
But prison life, she said, can disrupt the ensemble. Someone might disappear into segregation. Because of overcrowding, women are being sent out to the Yakima County Jail—a harrowing proposition, both Songer and Freehold director Robin Lynn Smith said, not only because that tears a person out of her social network, but because county jails don't have many programs. Addiction services, parenting classes, libraries, community-college classes—there is little of that in the revolving door of a county jail. Some women, Songer said, would break rules when they heard they were being transferred, just to stay at WCCW, knowing they would be punished for it.
One audience member asked if the performers felt "supported" by the other prisoners. Yes, they answered. After last night's premiere, one woman said, she went "home" to her unit and got a standing ovation when she walked through the door. Another said that last night, "for that one time, nobody had anything bad to say about anything."