Storycatching will be a monthly column by Artistic Director Meade Palidofsky relating stories that have shaped company philosophy, mission and process over the past 30 + years.
Soon we will be hanging the banner for the Sheila Kalish Memorial Theatre in the gym at Illinois Youth Center (IYC)-Warrenville. That banner will welcome audiences for our fall 2016 production of Dear Sky, the culmination of a year’s work. That banner, posted high above the entrance into our red-curtained space, makes me vividly remember Sheila, a generous high-powered attorney, and Lourdes, a short, spunky, tomboyish Latina girl.
In the early days, when we first began the Fabulous Females program at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, those shows were more like reviews: songs, poetry, and stories, all looped together around a theme. Not really a play – not yet. At the Center, the girls were rarely detained as long as the boys, so everything with that first Fabulous Females program needed to happen at a much more rapid pace.
When she first started coming to rehearsals, Lourdes was a spitfire. A fighter. A miniature tough girl. She had come to see what this Fabulous Females was about.
“I’m lookin’, but maybe I won’t stay.”
For this show, our regular choreographer was not available and a friend recommended to us a ballerina: tall, beautiful, and elegantly ebony from the Dance Theater of Harlem. She was not hip-hop. She beckoned to Lourdes to join her as she stretched and pliéd. “Come here, Lourdes.” Lourdes, who on the street wore big baggy shirts and saggy pants, who hid behind a deep throaty laugh, an impish grin, and a tough tiny fighter’s stance, crackled:
“Me, dance? You’ve gotta be crazy! I can’t dance like a baby girl!”
But she was intrigued. She could not help but love the way the ballerina moved.
“No, no, no, no, no!”
“Just try. All you have to do is try. What could it hurt?”
“No. . . Maybe.”
Kenny Davis, a Detention Center staff member and extraordinary songwriter, took one of the girls’ poems and set it to music. It became a lovely, haunting song called “Jasmine” about a girl who finds herself on the street: trying not to be abused, trying not to be raped, trying to stay out of the house because she cannot bear the abuse happening within.
JASMINE CAN’T YOU SEE HER?
SHE WANTS TO GIVE NOT JUST RECEIVE
SHE WANTS TO BE SOMEBODY
TO MAKE YOU ALL BELIEVE
IN JASMINE, IN JASMINE
“Maybe I could be her. Jasmine. I know how she feels”
Once Lourdes gave in to the movement and found that it connected both to her guts and her heart, she couldn’t stop.
She had learned that she loved to move. That it made her feel better.
And one day, when another girl attacked her, she balled up and didn’t fight back. She didn’t want to commit a disciplinary infraction. She didn’t want to lose her dance.
As the performance day grew near, I went with one of our apprentice teaching artists, Leah, to talk to Lourdes about her costume. We told Lourdes it needed to be a dress.
“A dress?! You’re kidding me! Me in a dress? I don’t wear dresses. I don’t. Not for nothin’! Nope, nope, nope!”
Suddenly realizing by the look on our faces that this might be a deal-breaker, she reconsidered. “Okay, maybe if it’s a hot red dress and it is very, very tight. Skin tight. Really, really tight. Thin straps and short. Very short. Then I could wear it. But red, very, very red. Yes. Peach, maybe. But pink? Definitely not. I will never wear pink. Don’t even think about it. That is what a different kind of girl would wear. Not me.”
After a few days and some thrift store shopping, Leah came back with the dress. She pulled it out of the bag. It was soft and flowing – and pink. Lourdes looked like she was being mugged.
“No, you want me to look like some little girl? People are gonna talk about me in that dress!”
“Just try it on.”
“No, no, no! Never!” But Lourdes wanted to dance. She could taste that dance, she could feel it in her bones, in her stomach, in her nerves, how she desired it. Dreamed of it. Being somebody.
“Okay, maybe I will just try it on.” She disrobed and let the dress fall over her head.
Leah then took a ribboned string of daisies out of the bag. She pulled the ponytail ring out of Lourdes’ hair and combed out the rich, red-brown hair she had released. She strung the daisies through it.
Kenny started playing Jasmine, and Lourdes stepped out on to her imaginary stage and began to dance and let the dress move around her – and she danced and danced. In this safe space, she released a completely different side of herself: soft, pretty, tender – and hurt. All of the pain inside of her spilled out as a girl named Jasmine.
We happened to have a newspaper reporter there the evening of the costume fittings who interviewed a few of the girls.
Lourdes sat expectantly in her pink dress and daisies. I saw the reporter start to leave, she’d gotten enough. I raced after her.
“Please, you have to talk to Lourdes. She’s waited the whole night wearing that dress for you. Please, don’t leave yet!”
The reporter consented to stay. Lourdes grandly flowed into a chair in front of the reporter. Holding on to her inner Jasmine. Smiling. Happy. On the brink of a fulfillment she had never felt before.
Finally, the performance day arrived. Lourdes’ mother sat in the center seat in the front row. Directly behind her sat Sheila Kalish, a criminal lawyer who was dedicated to her juvenile cases.
As Lourdes danced, twirling, dipping, stretching, lying on the floor, she at last came to a place in the music where she knelt in front of her mother – and she whispered to her Mom, “I love you.”
And Sheila – a mother of daughters – heard that whisper of love. That moment changed everything. That was the moment that Sheila decided to take on Lourdes’ case.
Lourdes was facing a gun charge – tied to her boyfriend. And the gun was connected to a murder. She had been offered a sentence of 40 years in adult prison. But after Sheila took her case, Lourdes was adjudicated as a juvenile and received six months.
This may sound incredible, but it is not. Having a lawyer who cares, who has resources, who believes in you, who is not someone who has to be there for you but wants to be, makes a profound difference in how the court views your case. For Lourdes, it made the difference between being allowed to remain a young girl who could stretch her wings or literally being put in a cage until she was bitter and old.
Transformation. That is what our work is about. Guiding and gently pushing a young person to release the inner self. Watching as our work leads adult audience members to decide to use their power to help.
Help that dancing child to grow and to continue to dance.