Adapted from a blog posted 10/08/20 on Life As A Modern Dancer
In 2018, Jo put out a call for a Black change-maker interested in engaging with a Jewish artist about racial justice and prison abolition. Rahsaan responded. In the more than 3 years we’ve been in collaboration, we’ve written 45 letters, sat down together over vending machine meals in San Quentin’s visiting room twice, and shared over 100 phone calls. We are different from each other. Black and White, Muslim and Jewish (though our religious practices are only lightly etched), Male and Female. Incarcerated and Free. Writer and Choreographer.
Below are some of our thoughts on the process of co-creating Meet Us Quickly with Your Mercy.
Jo Kreiter: We’ve read over a dozen books together. It’s books that’ve allowed us to become close. We would identify a thought or an idea that matters in the conversation between Blacks and Jews, then find the book that best brought that conversation alive. We had help from Shaina Hammerman, a Jewish scholar who teaches at USF and whom Rahsaan met as a teacher in a San Quentin Prison writing program.
Rashaan Thomas: Working in proximity to a woman who choreographs dancing in the air has been amazing. Although our modes of communication are limited (the visiting room has been closed since March due to COVID-19), Jo and I make it work. I answer every letter the same day it arrives. Jo planned the event way ahead of time so there was time for my input into every aspect of the show. We make each other’s ideas better, and I feel valued and honored that my insight matters.
JK: We based two of the three sections of the show on Rahsaan’s writing. One article, Pushed and Shoved, was explicitly commissioned by this project and is animated beautifully by dancers Clarissa Dyas and Laura Ellis. It evokes the ways that prison divides people against each other, often by race. There has been so much joy, for me, in expanding my choreographic process to include a writer.
That said, it’s more than a little bit heartbreaking to create with someone who does not have the freedom to see the power of what we have made. I can send Rahsaan photos of the designs, set and the dancers, but prison does not allow the passing of video. So I am left to describe on the phone the choreographic choices I’ve made, inside conceptual choices we made together.
RT: Being included in this creative process with Jo and MOAD (Museum of the African Diaspora) has allowed me to make purpose out of the chaos of incarceration. I also find comfort in knowing that we are making a lasting difference, together. Life hasn’t been wasted.
JK: When I first thought about the piece, I thought in terms of calling in Jewish voices, to amplify the call for racial justice via an end to mass incarceration. But Rahsaan corrected me. He thought a calling in of Jewish voices was tinged with White saviorism, and asked instead that we call in Black and Jewish voices simultaneously. This is what I want audiences to take away from the piece — a shared responsibility for racial justice, no matter the color of your skin, or contours of your God.
RT: I pray this event shows the public the power of working with people in prison, and encourages more people to get proximate to incarcerated people. I learned about proximity from Bryan Stevenson, when he came to speak at San Quentin State Prison. I sat in the chapel, eager to hear the author of Just Mercy give me solutions to fixing the criminal system. He mentioned getting proximate to the problem in order to solve it. His words resonated. Finding ways to be proximate with the public became my first step to stopping mass incarceration.
Bryan Stevenson was right. I am accomplishing so much from prison through working with people who reach past the bars and into my heart, mind and passion. Proximate relationships have led me to work with Taina Vargas-Edmond to get Prop 17 (restoring voting rights to people on parole) on the November 2020 ballot; working with Su Kim and Emily Nonko to create Empowerment Avenue — a program that pairs incarcerated and free writers to facilitate getting our pieces published; and this project with Jo Kreiter. Proximity is how I ended up co-hosting Ear Hustle with Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods; and how director Christine Yoo and I were chosen by the Marshall Project and Sundance Foundation to create a documentary film.
Through proximity, we can build relationships that chip away the walls of mass incarceration.
Rahsaan “New York” Thomas is a writer, director, producer and podcaster. He co-hosts and co-produces the Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast Ear Hustle. He is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and San Quentin News, and a co-founder of Prison Renaissance. The Brooklyn, New York native is currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison from where he chairs a chapter of the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists. The campaign to secure his release from prison can be found at payit2.com/fundraiser/112543
Jo Kreiter is a choreographer and site artist with a background in political science. Through dance she engages physical innovation and the political conflicts we live within. Working with her company, Flyaway Productions, Kreiter’s tools include community collaboration, a masterful use of place, an intersectional feminist lens and a body-based push against the constraints of gravity. Recent awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Rauschenberg Artist as Activist Fellowship, and a National Dance Project Creation Grant. From 2017-2022, she is creating The Decarceration Trilogy: Dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex One Dance at a Time.