Blue Lines, Steel, and the Hour of Myth

Women in prison transcend violence, tedium, and the past

King Minos decides to keep the White Bull for himself and sacrifices an ordinary bull to Poseidon instead. A few minutes after 3:00 p.m. two guards organize the audience for head count. Each guard individually counts the inmates lined up along the hallway to the old VP, and then counts again, until they both agree on a number: "66."

Against the opposite wall, between a bright red Coke machine and a card table holding a pile of handmade props, the guards count the performers; all dressed in blue pants with white stripes up the legs and prison-issue white cotton undershirts. "Ten," the guards agree.

Maggie Carr and Gloria Baez see themselves in each 
other; Margarita Cantin (top) feels the Minotaur in her 
Jonathan Postal
Maggie Carr and Gloria Baez see themselves in each other; Margarita Cantin (top) feels the Minotaur in her flesh
Natasha Rivera (top) slays her fears; Maggie Carr 
(bottom) is a leader
Jonathan Postal
Natasha Rivera (top) slays her fears; Maggie Carr (bottom) is a leader

Ten of seventeen women who initially signed up for the thirteen-week session managed to make it through to the December 2003 presentation without dropping out, getting locked down, getting shipped to another prison, or in one glorious case, being sent home. The group lost the first Minotaur to lock. Then after weeks of rehearsal her replacement backed out only hours before the show. To fill in for the Minotaur and the White Bull, the chorus was stripped of two of its most energetic members. Luz Reyes, one of four women remaining in the depleted chorus and an eternal if enthusiastic follower, found herself a leader by default.

"Oh my God, I never had no responsibility," Reyes admits. "I haven't taken care of my daughters for years. Even when they were babies, they used to fall off the bed." The 31-year-old Puerto Rican's story is typical of many heard inside: alcoholic and abusive parents; caregiver for younger siblings; and solace found in drinking, drugs, and the attention of men, no matter how abusive. Reyes made her living as an exotic dancer, snorting cocaine for the courage to get onstage. Late one night she accepted a ride from a man outside the club. She says he tried to rape and strangle her. Reyes stabbed him to death, and was convicted of manslaughter.

Terrified, Reyes stands at the front of the chorus. The three women behind her forget gestures they have rehearsed for weeks. They stand silent, frozen in place. Reyes perseveres. The bold chopping motion that accompanied the syllables of Mi-mi-mi-mi-nos is reduced to a finger flutter. The boisterous hiss of Po-sssssei-don is now a suppressed sigh. But Reyes doesn't give up. Slowly the rest of the chorus catches her courage.

It's hard enough to dance in class; moving the body revives so many feelings the women have forced themselves to forget. "Things become a little emotional and they give up," Carr observes of the dropout rate over the years. "I always ask myself: Why do they give up so easy?" For the women who stick it out, class offers sanctuary. "There's so much hustle here -- the lies, the drugs, the prison games," she continues. "When you come to the group you bring your walls down. There's no messing up. You can just be."

Prison regulations don't allow for family members or friends to sit in the audience. Instead the dancers perform for fellow inmates, a daunting proposition. "The people out there [on the compound] are ruthless. You don't want to show any weakness because they'll use it against you," Carr points out. "I know a lot of them laugh at us. They get back and say shit. But inside they're saying: I wish I had the courage to do that."

As punishment Poseidon casts a spell on Minos's wife Queen Pasiphaë to make her fall in love with the White Bull. Pasiphaë convinces the king's architect Daedalus to make her a cow costume so she can seduce the White Bull. A Latin pop song pours out of a portable sound system, advising listeners to Look at the essence/not the appearance. Carr, playing Pasiphaë, swirls an enormous red cape made out of paper in front of the White Bull.

When the song ends, narrator Evelyn Chapman strides across the floor, reciting an original poem. The inmates in the front row egg her on. Some envy the 23-year-old her beauty; others are thrilled by her enormous eyes, smooth café-au-lait skin, and slim figure. In prison since she was sixteen, the striking Chapman is used to causing a stir. When I walk up in a room/I glow like the moon/I shine like the sun, she declares. She warns her detractors: Your critical glances and negative phrases/Try to dim my glow/But it won't work.

Chapman, who came to Miami from the Dominican Republic as a toddler, learned about the fusion of love and hate from her mother. Chapman was beaten for not doing a good enough job cooking, cleaning, or caring for younger siblings born to a series of fathers. The little girl would comfort the adult when her mother was abandoned by yet another man. By the time she was thirteen, Chapman says, she was tired of being the family "rescuer." She found herself hooking up with boyfriends who introduced her to drugs and dealing. A toke of pot, a snort of cocaine, she chants. And the confusion and emptiness magically went away. Chapman stops pacing and snaps: I was lost in the maze.

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