REVIEW: she was here, once

Monday night the Institute for Research on Women and Gender welcomed Nastassja Swift and her exhibit she was here, once as part of their Narrating Black Girls’ Lives Conference series. Over three days they hosted speakers and other events, including a wool art workshop, focusing on the stories of Black women’s lives. The opening of the she was here, once exhibit took place in the Lane Hall entrance, utilizing the space as an unconventional gallery. The exhibit was not large, it featured a half dozen photos down two hallways, short films looping on two screens, and three large masks hanging above our heads. The exhibit opening was small; everyone who was there knew someone there and was clearly comfortable in the space.
This art exhibit is based on a performance art piece. The performance was a journey of three and a half miles for eight African women in Richmond, Virginia. These women traveled from the port on the James river, past the old auction blocks, and finally into a majority Black neighborhood. Throughout their journey, the women, ranging in age from teen-aged to mid-40s, stopped along the way to dance and sing. Swift was inspired to create this piece after learning about the historical significance of the city she had spent so much time in.
I looked at the photographs first. I was struck by the last four photos I looked at (below) featuring some of the performers without their masks on, one of the few chances to see their faces. The photographs featured such raw, beautiful emotion and their placement in a quadrant of four panels made it even more striking. Next, I took in the masks. The performers wore larger-than-life, white, wool masks for the majority of their journey. Three of these masks were featured in the exhibit hanging above us as almost caricatures of stereotypical African features. Finally, I watched the two short films documenting the performance art piece and the creative process. As I moved throughout the space the sound of the women singing in the videos was omnipresent, creating an ambiance in the space and a moving experience.

REVIEW: The Exonerated

The American criminal justice system is not perfect. Far from it. In fact, you can even say that the American criminal justice system is not just. The Exonerated tells the story of six wrongfully convicted people on death row using first-hand accounts, as well as court transcripts, letters, and interviews.

We meet Kerry Max Cook, Gary Gauger, Robert Earl Hayes, Sunny Jacobs, David Keaton, and Delbert Tibbs. They start by telling us about their lives, about how things were before their lives changed forever. They take turns sitting in the spotlight and introducing themselves and the nature of the crimes they were accused of, with occasional and brief flashbacks acted out. They narrate what led up to it, about how they weren’t even close to the scene of the crime, yet they were accused and arrested and berated by police officers. They were all convenient victims as suspects for these crimes, tricked into confessing and easily disposable.

Their harrowing experiences in prison, waiting for death row, was painful to hear. Listening to Cook’s account about how his imprisonment affected his older brother particularly stung, reminding us that these people, who aren’t even criminals, are still people, with families and feelings and a life outside of the prison walls even if we forget that. Sunny Jacobs’s gentle and innocent personality especially reminds us of their humanity, something that the justice system robbed them of but they managed to keep, even after the injustices they suffered. Eventually, they tell us how they were exonerated, but only after they paid the price with many years lost and many losses suffered.

Andrew Cekala’s portrayal as Kerry, the fast-talking Texan, was very amicable and easygoing, just as Maddie Eaton gave Sunny a bright and sunny personality. Similarly, Jacob Smith as Gary, Chris Washington as David, and Lee Alexander as Robert all made their characters warm and distinct. Delbert Tibbs, portrayed by Mason Reeves, acted as a powerful narrator and common thread among all the stories, listening to Sunny’s account of her strength at the very end. The entire cast delivered a moving performance through all the nuances of their characters and their situations.

All the characters remained onstage the entire play, sitting in their chairs on the side while listening intensely to the person in the spotlight whose story is being told. The simplicity of the set, with nothing more than a couple boxes and plenty of chairs, let us focus on the stories they were telling. The movement was also simple, the characters moving their chairs and shifting positions throughout the play, sometimes accompanied by the cast’s quiet yet powerful humming. The sound of the gentle rain and the shifting colors of the background gave a sense of growing uneasiness and eerie calmness at the same time.

The stories of these wrongful convictions shows how the justice system fails its people, and it touches on race and the death penalty and how we need to rethink such things. This play is extremely thought-provoking and important to watch and even more important to remember. SMTD’s production of this documentary play reminds us how relevant and timeless this work is. Though the sentences in the play took place during the 20th century, there are plenty of people still waiting to be exonerated today, and we walk away from this play with those people in mind.

REVIEW: Arab Xpressions

The theme for Arab Xpressions this year was “ajyal” which means generations in Arabic. This theme was represented well in the show presented by the Arab Student Association and wider Arab community. While last year’s show was very outwardly political, this show was more subtle and nuanced. From the fashion show to the five dabke troupes we were shown the progression of Arab culture as something that is vibrant and alive, not stagnant. The fashion show was a magnificent representation of this range with some eighty Arab students displaying both old fashioned and modern representations of Arab fashion, from traditional thobes to artfully draped kuffiyehs. The dabke dance troupes showed a similar progression with more traditional dance and costumes to the more modern representations.
A friend of mine danced with one of the co-ed troupes representing modern dabke, dancing in track suits to songs by popular artists like Nancy Ajram; I caught up with her to see what the experience was like for student performers. Maya Chamra is a sophomore in LSA who identifies as Lebanese and Syrian. We talked a little bit about what it meant for her to be performing at Arab Xpressions with a crowd full of friends and family. Maya expressed how special it was for her to connect with a dance so important to her culture and the pride she felt. After watching the show last year from the audience, Maya felt the the need to be more involved with the Arab community on campus so she joined her dabke troupe this last October and had been practicing ever since. One aspect of Arab Xpressions that Maya and I discussed is its role in uniting the Arab community on campus. Maya herself is not particularly active in the larger Arab Student Union but connects with her community through dabke. She perceived this to be a common occurrence for many of her fellow Arab-identifying students participating in the show. Arab Xpressions is always a wonderful way for the University to come together and show support for the Arab student community. The night is always full of laughter, cheers, and often a few tears and Arab Xpressions 2019 was no exception.

Image courtesy of the Arab Xpressions Facebook event page.

REVIEW: Stories Never Told

Friday night felt like the perfect evening to take in a thoughtful, emotional exhibit like Stories Never Told: Yemen’s Crises and Renaissance. The exhibit was held on the 10th floor of Weiser which is a view in and of itself. The walls were lined with paintings, prints, and photos taken by artists from Yemen and the Yemeni diaspora. At the back of the space was a stand put up by Qahwah House, a Yemeni cafe based in Dearborn, with coffee, tea, and treats such as sabaya (a Yemeni honey cake) drizzled with locally sourced honey. These treats were perfect to keep me company as I made my way over to the screen for the speakers and short films. Before programming began, they had screens playing music videos by Yemeni artists. A short documentary was featured telling the story of Yemeni singer-songwriter Methal and her path to releasing a song featuring the major American band X Ambassadors. They also showed an interview of a Yemeni social media influencer based in South Korea sharing her story in Arabic. I was surprised to find that, after a year and a half without practicing or using my Arabic, I was able to understand a fair amount of the video, which was necessary since there were no subtitles.
After opening remarks from the Arab American National Museum and the curator, Hanan Ali Yahyah, there was a short presentation given by an expert from Michigan State University on the background of the crisis in Yemen. This truly put things in context when watching the eight following short films. Yemen is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis of our time and this exhibit truly portrayed that. The short film that cut the deepest was about a woman living in Yemen whose heart condition left her dependent on medication which is difficult to find in conflict-torn Yemen. At the end of the film we learned that she died four minutes before her son arrived with the medication to save her life. The audience heaved a collective sigh and we all started to understand why there were boxes of tissue along the aisles. The visual art was equally stunning and emotional. One artist expressed her struggle with identity through photographs with her face edited out. Another piece that caught my attention, as a former cellist, was a painting featuring a young girl playing cello in the wreckage of her city.

REVIEW: The Exonerated

The Exonerated was a well-written and evocative play. The six stories were effectively interwoven with smooth transitions, and the music segwayed well between scenes. The unfolding of events was compelling and heartbreaking. To balance out the anger, grief, and hopelessness, the play also utilized elements of religion or the divine to bring hope. I walked away with so many emotions and was unsure of what to do. What can I do to advocate for people who have been wrongfully accused of a crime and imprisoned? I don’t know.

Each storyline had possible “reasons” for why someone was wrongfully accused (because as an audience, consumer of stories, and general human beings we are inclined to look for reason and logic, and the playwrights acknowledged this). In three of the six stories, it was “because of” the person’s race. Most, if not all, of the stories took place in the 1970s (Not to say that racism no longer exists, but blatant racism was more prevalent during that decade.) Even when there was no evidence—or even more despicably, when there was evidence that indicated that they were innocent—they were tried and convicted.

The other two stories were about white men. One man’s parents were brutally murdered, he was convicted, and years later someone found out the murderer(s) were actually members of a gang. The other man was accused of being a “perverted, bloodthirsty homosexual” who took out his anger by murdering a woman. The play did not go into detail about his sexuality; later on, he married a woman, so he may have been straight or bisexual. But his sexuality was not relevant. What was relevant, was the label of being “gay” was put on him to convince people in the court that he was guilty (Remember that the conversion therapy [a recognized form of torture] trend started in the 1970s. It’s still legal in some states, and gay marriage only became legal in 2015). News of his presumptive sexuality was broadcasted on television and he was raped in prison. His perpetrators carved profanity into his skin, so deep that plastic surgery could not repair the damage. Awful, awful stuff.  


The remaining story was about a woman who, even after someone else admitted to committing the murder, was left in prison for another sixteen years. She was the first woman to ever be put on death row.

The “reasons” why the latter three people were falsely convicted were less clear. Perhaps because we do not (I did not) generally think of white people being cheated by the justice system (unless they are a female in the context of sexual assault), and the narrative of the illy treated African American is so disgustingly common.

The most important thing I want to point out is that even now, people are wrongfully convicted all the time. This narrative is not unique to the 1970s. Being a victim of systematic injustice does not just happen to African Americans, or women who are sexually abused, or gay white men. It is not unique to a certain race or social class. Plenty of children of all races and social class are under the guardianship of caregivers who abuse them, sometimes for decades, even when Child Protective Services has already been called numerous times.

Of course, being wrongfully convicted is more common for certain demographics because our justice system favors the economically well off (if you don’t have the means to hire a lawyer, you may be assigned one who is overworked, underpaid, unexperienced, or has no intention of looking out for your best interest. It happens all the time.) Or, being of a privileged social status may decrease your chances of becoming a victim. But it does not prevent it. What I have learned throughout the years, is that the court system is all about connections and social status.

Why, when two people commit murder, one is put on death row and the other is sentenced ten years in prison, and then gets out in three? Where is the logic? What do we do in a society that wrongfully convicts the innocent and acquits the guilty? That’s not to say there aren’t any success stories. But I often wonder, do we have a justice system? Or do we have a system that places blame? Personally, I believe it is the latter.

For the unlucky ones—when you come out of prison, you have to learn how to feel again. If you didn’t have problems with mental health before prison, you most likely will have them after being in that kind of an environment.

I feel compelled into action. But I don’t know what to do. The only bandage I can think of for this enormous wound is compassion. Believe someone. Being wronged by the justice system does not automatically mean you lied or did something wrong. Sometimes, the most damaging experience isn’t the traumatic incident itself, but afterwards, when people don’t believe you. Or when your credibility is scrutinized in court. Or when you have to recount every traumatic moment in excruciating detail while prosecutors cross-examine you and question why your description of the events was not precisely the same as the testimony you gave six months or two years ago. Because yes, court cases do get dragged on for that long, and often much longer.

Be aware of our unjust “justice” system. We may not be able to eradicate the unfair and immoral. But we can listen.



*photos by Peter Smith Photography