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Libraries, theatre collaboration brings incarceration history to the stage

Alan Flurry

Beginning this Friday, November 8, the first-of-its-kind endeavor, By Our Hands – a cross-institutional theatrical experience between Spelman College, the University of Georgia, librarians, archivists, students, professionals, incarcerated individuals, and community partners – takes the Fine Arts theatre stage. The Georgia Incarceration Performance Project incorporates scenes directly from Georgia history to negotiate our relationship with incarceration, race, and the impact of forced labor through dance, media, and dramatic performance. 

Our colleagues at the UGA libraries have written, and shared with us pre-publication, a terrific story about how the collaboration brings incarceration history to the stage:

Century-old stories of exploited Georgia prisoners have been lifted from the University of Georgia Libraries’ vault to the gallery and now to the stage, through a collaboration among archivists, faculty members and students at UGA and Spelman College.

Through the partnership, students and faculty have engaged with dozens of artifacts and historical documents to create [The Georgia Incarceration Performance Project], which will culminate in performances this fall and winter. 

“When you think about it, all of the things that are captured on paper and in documents and photographs in our archives, those are all voices. Those are all expressions of people’s feelings and ideas and their visions, what’s frustrating, what’s angering, what’s saddening,” archivist Jill Severn said of the use of archival material in a theatre project. “The idea that an archive can be transformed and brought to life in some way — embodied — is like the fulfillment of bringing those documents out of their artificial context in boxes, quietly stored away, and giving them life again and letting those voices speak again.”

The project began in the summer of 2018 when Sidonia Serafini, a doctoral student in UGA’s department of English in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, curated an exhibit examining Georgia’s incarceration history for the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. 

The exhibit, currently on display in the Hargrett Library’s gallery at the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries, explores the consequences of the 13th Amendment, which freed thousands of enslaved people and outlawed forced labor except as punishment for a crime. Utilizing this loophole, Georgia and other Southern states legalized the leasing of prisoners for profit to private individuals and companies beginning in 1866. In 1908, the Georgia General Assembly abolished the convict lease system, but soon after implemented the chain gang system, which also put prisoners to work. 

As Serafini delved into penitentiary reports, lease contracts, correspondence, newspaper articles, photographs and other materials in the Hargrett collection to create the exhibit script and materials, exhibit coordinator Jan Hebbard shared the work with Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the department of theatre and film studies and the Institute for African American Studies.

Dr. Amma, as she is known to her students, participated in the inaugural class of the University Libraries’ Special Collections Fellows in the 2015-2016 academic year. During her fellowship, she worked with Hebbard and Severn, archivist for the Russell B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, to create a course called “Performing the Archives,” where students explore original materials from the Libraries’ special collections and adapt those materials into a live performance. 

Hebbard saw the incarceration exhibit as another opportunity for collaboration, and Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, who had been discussing a partnership with UGA’s Emily Sahakian and Spelman’s Keith Arthur Bolden and Julie Johnson, presented the idea to her colleagues. From there, [The Georgia Incarceration Performance Project] was born. 

“The timeliness and urgency of this exhibit are palpable,” the four wrote in the program for the upcoming play By Our Hands. “But how do we gather a community of Georgia residents to openly look at and discuss this difficult past (and present)? How do we honestly negotiate our own relationship to incarceration, issues of race, and the impact of forced labor on our everyday experiences as Georgians? How can we explore the cultural memories of this history that live and move in our bodies? Encountering the archival material in the exhibit’s display cases, how can we make a human connection to the inanimate archival objects of this felt history?

“We turn to performance,” they concluded.

And they will do just that this weekend. Congratulations to the scholars, students and all participants involved in this import project.

Image of students working in June 2019 rehearsals by Jason Thrasher

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