- Originally started in Seattle, the Conciliation Project has an 11-year history of facilitating difficult conversations around race and racism through theatrical work led by founder and artistic director Tawnya Pettiford-Wates.
The plantation never left, it just changed its name.
This is the assertion being made by the Conciliation Project in its work "The P.I.C.: the Prison Industrial Project," which hits the stage later this week. Among other things, this production alleges that the system is arranged to keep people incarcerated for profit and that tracking in public schools sets up children for prison.
"It's looking at how racism is more prevalent than ever, it's just more insidious," says Joe Carlson, the show's director. Carlson points to examples such as New York's controversial stop-and-frisk program, which allows police to question and search people on the suspicion that they might commit a crime. Critics of the policy say that with the vast majority of those stopped being African-American or Latino, the practice is tantamount to racial profiling.
"White youths are more likely to buy and sell drugs than brown and black youths," Carlson says. "Why are [minorities] stopped? Because they live in certain neighborhoods."
The Conciliation Project started as part of a community college class in Seattle under the tutelage of Tawnya Pettiford-Wates. The group collaboratively created a piece of theater called "Uncle Tom: Deconstructed," which explored how blackface minstrel shows have influenced racial stereotypes we still hold today. The play uses actors in blackface, whiteface and cross-gendered costumes, which are taken off at the show's conclusion.
"What happened was a spontaneous engagement of the audience in dialogue," says Pettiford-Wates of the 2001 show. "It was pretty amazing, and [word] kind of spread throughout the city."
After becoming a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Pettiford-Wates brought the project and the show to Richmond, including several company members. Carlson says the show hooked him immediately.
"Seeing that show pretty much changed my life in terms of theater and art," says Carlson, who is now a company member. "It really affected me on an emotional and spiritual level. … I went up to [Pettiford-Wates] that night and said I want to be involved."
Since its founding, the Conciliation Project has created six original works, as well as four pieces in partnership with local community groups such as Housing Opportunities Made Equal. The works are intended to be staged every few years, but adapted to reflect changing times and new problems.
"The P.I.C.," which is nonlinear in its construction, will explore how the privatization of the prison system has affected it, and how the legal representation people can afford affects their outcomes in court. The show stages some of the real-life stories of people incarcerated at Richmond City Jail.
"Art has to have a meaning in the end," says Andrienne Wilson, the group's music director and office manager. Wilson, a musician who has toured nationally and opened for Carlos Santana, was originally with the project in Seattle. Part of the reason she moved to Richmond was to continue to make a difference working with the theater company.
"The truth of it is drama enough," Wilson says of the show's stories. "We don't have to add the drama." S
The Conciliation Project's "The P.I.C.: Prison Industrial Complex," plays June 13-29 at Unity of Richmond, 800 Blanton Ave. For information call 477-6453 or visit theconciliationproject.org.