We the 350: Stories of Poverty, Racism, and Incarceration in Wisconsin

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Actors in “We the 350”

After over a year of citywide conversations on Madison race relations, the locally-produced play “We the 350: Stories of Poverty, Racism, and Incarceration in Wisconsin” will bring that conversation to the Overture Center.

Co-written and co-directed by Sara McKinnon, UW-Madison assistant professor in communication arts, and T. Banks, a recent UW graduate and core member of the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition, the play draws from real-life experiences of black people in Dane County who have been incarcerated. The “350” is a number that represents the disproportionate amount of poor African-Americans incarcerated in Dane County.

“If you think about population in Madison about 5 percent of the population is black. If you think about population in the jail, 50 percent are black.” McKinnon said.

Performances of “We the 350” take place in Overture Center’s Promenade Hall on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Admission to the show is free, but donations of $5 are suggested to contribute to the “Free the 350” campaign.

The title for the play was inspired by “Free the 350,” a campaign that demands the release of 350 incarcerated African-Americans in Dane County due to crimes of poverty.

FullSizeRender (3)“There are a lot of crimes of poverty that happen in our city, they happen everywhere, but in particular they happen in our city,” McKinnon said. “These are ‘crimes’ like loitering or sleeping on a park bench, ‘crimes’ that effectively people have to do to survive because they’re poor.”

For those incarcerated for such offenses, jail time is often prolonged due to an inability to pay bail, McKinnon said.

Banks, a member of UW-Madison’s First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts learning community, who has performed shows addressing mental wellness in the 2014 and 2015 Line Breaks festivals, and McKinnon, having done Ph.D. work in performance studies, decided to use the power of performance art to highlight the realities of racialized poverty in Madison.

“When I was getting training in performance studies I was told to think about ways of using the stage to highlight social issues that audience can access,” McKinnon said. “That’s a really important aspect of this.”

The directors conducted nine interviews over the past summer, ranging from 30 minutes to 5 hours long, with black people from Wisconsin whose “life experiences have met at the intersection of racism, poverty, and incarceration,” McKinnon said. Banks and McKinnon used commonalities from the interviews in order to build a cohesive story line for the play, and redacted any names or other details that would identify the subjects.

“We really tried to stick closely to the voices of the people that we were interviewing, so that those voices remained present,” McKinnon said.

The multi-narrative performance will featured a six-member cast that mixes UW-Madison students, community members and one high school student, all playing multiple characters.

A grant from Overture Center’s Community Arts Access Program funded the space for the performance. The event is co-sponsored by Young, Gifted, and Black coalition and UW-Madison’s Comparative US Studies cluster.

“There’s been a lot of attention over this past year to racial disparities. We often times hear a lot of statistics, but this performance tries to provide a different type of evidence to this problem, which is stories,” McKinnon said.

Co-Directors and Co-Writers T. Banks and Sara McKinnon

Story Courtesy of The Cap Times

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