A change in key in a piece of music signifies a modulation that sets the musical tones and themes in a new direction, whether higher or lower, from darker shades to lighter, eventually moving the motifs toward resolution. In the play Key Change, directed by Laura Lindow, award winner at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, there are no key changes, no modulations, no resolutions. There is just the same stultifying routine, a repetition of nullifying, destructive behaviors that reflect little divergence or hope as the women in Her Majesty’s Prison Low Newton do their time and attempt to get to the next day in one piece, physically and emotionally.
Open Clasp innovated this work based on the lives of women prisoners after the theatre company members visited and spent time with them in HMPLN, inspiring Catrina McHugh to write the play. The director shepherded the cast’s adroit and heartfelt performances and configured them into an artistic, living piece. It is a work of poetic symmetry with wisps of song, music and movement spun into a dramatic event that Open Clasp hoped would resonate especially among the incarcerated.
As discovery, Open Clasp presented their work to male prisoners around England believing that that they would identity and gain empathy for the women and reverse their negative behaviors toward their wives and girlfriends. The tour was a success and there were further accolades at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2015.
The play is a production within a production as four women relate and act out the stories of their lives before and in prison, eventually siphoning off the hows and whys of their incarceration to achieve quasi-friendships. In their story-telling they attempt to be productive and self-expressive. Particularly effective scenes are those in which the actors map out the boundaries of their confinement with masking tape and express their yearning for freedom by turning the letters they receive from family into birds that fly and take them away.
However, the extent to which their self-expression will help them take a reckoning of their lives to eventually bring them to change cannot be calculated, especially if the social culture does nothing productive to intervene, help them relocate, or guide them effectively away from the behaviors that put them in prison to begin with.
Angie and Lucy are both from lower socioeconomic cultures. Angie’s (Jessica Johnson is vibrant, gritty, in-the-moment exceptional) and Lucy’s (Cheryl Dixon is her laid-back, beaten-down counterpart) backgrounds show similarities and differences, with the common elements of paternalistic/chauvinistic abuse, violence, parental neglect and eventual self-damage.
Kelly (Christiana Berriman Dawson), Kim (Judi Earl) and Lorraine (Victoria Copeland) aptly assist Angie and Lucy by taking on various parts, and echoing the two main characters’ differences in their own lives. We recognize these prototypes of the classic women in prison. What emerges is a portrait of cultural and social devastation, as if society stamped these women with a stereotype and sucked out all of their individuality, hope and identity.
McHugh emphasizes that “there but for the grace of God go any of us” in the random chance of the family and culture into which we were born. The characters’ language and accents and the content of their stories place them at a lower socioeconomic and cultural stratum of society, where there is a high level of crime, drugs, deaths, and lives wasted because the culture’s social institutions have not provided adequate or viable safety nets to turn individuals around before they end up with ineffective legal counsel and recurring prison sentences.
The pulsing thematic undercurrent is that the punishment of doing time and wasting life only cripples prisoners emotionally by reminding them of the unproductive behaviors that brought them to prison and an end to their citizenship rights. But for the bars and lockdown, their life in prison isn’t much different than their life outside. Whether inside or outside, the play cannily reveals, these women’s souls are imprisoned by drugs, abuse, and self-loathing. Without cultural and social encouragement to break the chains through purposeful endeavors inspired by education, or other productive pursuits, nothing will change for them. They will be caught in the revolving door of recidivism.
This becomes apparent when we come to understand that despite the women’s attempts to make life more interesting by retelling their stories, the opening altercation, choreographed with dark irony and set to “Right Here, Right Now,” repeats at the end of the production. Though we understand the context of the fight scene, it doesn’t matter. The negative behaviors will be unconsciously repeated (“there is nowhere else they would rather be”), and the revolving door will continue to revolve unless there is a “key change.” But who has the power and will to effect one for them?
In the U.S., as in England, with the privatization of prison systems there is no need to spend greater amounts on education, activities, etc., to keep inmates purposefully occupied. Prisons have become a profitable necessity and a gainful local employer in towns which have no industry. Prisons must constantly be stocked with prisoners like a pond is stocked with fish. Recidivism is a “necessary” evil to feed the hungry maw of a profitable prison industry.
Norway’s prisons are the antithesis of what these women reveal about Her Majesty’s Prison Low Newton and what we know pertains in U.S. prisons. There, a will to decrease recidivism has achieved success. Japan revamped its criminal justice system when research revealed that education was crucial to preventing repeat offenses, especially among those who never graduated high school. What became clear in both countries is that human life is valuable and money must be invested, not in war, but in educating its citizens and providing meaningful employment, indeed as human and citizenship rights.
Key Change is powerful in its performances and in its edgy content culled from truth. Its visceral truths are stark and real. In the U.S. and the UK, women’s and men’s lives are considered more valuable not to themselves or the culture, but to the criminal justice system that needs a populace for its jails. Until this nullifying vision of human rights is overthrown and society works to improve safety nets for those on the margins of the economy, the modulations and “key changes” which have occurred in countries like Norway will never happen.
Key Change is being presented at the 4th Street Theatre until January 31.