A pregnant aboriginal woman who was born in prison contemplates her depressing fate as she prepares to also give birth to a daughter while behind bars.
Jasmine, the prison-garbed central figure in the gritty comic drama Jail Baby, is resigned to repeating family history: "Born to be in prison. Born a prisoner. I'm just fulfilling my destiny. This is what my mom was wearing when I was born. I'm my mom 18 years later."
Jail Baby, the Sarasvti Productions premi®re penned by artistic director Hope McIntyre and Cairn Moore, seeks to provide context for the over-representation of aboriginal women in the Canadian corrections system. McIntye and Moore, as well as Nan Fewchuk and Marsha Knight, went into western Canadian prisons to question aboriginal women about their surprising status as the fastest growing offender population.
What they found and what makes up the spine of the thought-provoking Jail Baby is a dispiriting short life story of Jasmine, who never had a chance to escape a soul-sapping cycle of dehumanization: neglect, abuse, poverty, discrimination, violence and addictions. The effect in recent years has been to fast-track indigenous women into juvenile and adult detention and more Jasmine mother-daughter loops. They are the most marginalized of the marginalized.
Jail Baby succeeds graphically in presenting the real story as to why aboriginal women are nine times as likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime as any other women. From the time Jasmine (played by Melanie Dean) emerges at birth onto the concrete prison floor, she is more or less left to fend for herself, mothering her mother, used as domestic help in foster homes, as a sexual plaything by the men in her house before drifting into prostitution out of economic necessity.
Intersecting Jasmine's life is Patricia (Daina Leitold), a woman devastated to learn that her father was murdered by two hookers. The killer's accomplice was Jasmine and the two meet for an emotional mediation session. Patricia -- a standup character for the general public -- begins demanding retribution for her loss but eventually softens when she comes face to face with Jasmine.
To lighten the heavy load of social ills on display in Jail Baby, McIntyre and Moore intersperse comedic scenes that comment on the more sober action. They are introduced by a ringmaster (Shannon Guile) who presents circus acts involving the imprisoned women. "Come closer, if you dare," she says. "You'll be amazed, you'll be horrified, You'll be entertained beyond despair."
That's an accurate assessment of Jail Baby. The cruelties that Jasmine endures come across as all too authentic even if the playwrights did not raise the name of Ashley Smith, a teenager who committed suicide in jail in 2007, or play out the segregation cell birth of Julie Bilotta in Ottawa last year.
The parody scenes are more hit and miss. Lives of the Poor and Marginalized hits the comedic mark while The Kangaroo Court scene, with guest lawyer Saul Simmonds playing the judge, goes on too long for too little impact.
Jail Baby is raw and not particularly subtle, sacrificing artfulness to make its important point as powerfully as it can.
Director Ann Hodges deftly handles the quick scene cuts while maintaining an appealing pace and clarity, although some of the jumps from the serious to the wacky are wrenching. The performances are uniformly good but standouts are Tracey Nepinak in numerous roles, Ashley Chartrand as young Jasmine and Melanie Dean as adult Jasmine.
The playwrights raise a lot of crucial questions and wonder where the answers will come from in the absence of any political will in Ottawa to help society's marginalized with anything more than a jail cell. The ringleader delightfully declares, "And now that we are spending millions of dollars on new prisons and increased security, there won't be anything left over for frivolous things like: education, job training and rehabilitation."
To May 26, at U of W's Asper Centre for Theatre and Film
Tickets: $18, $12 for students and seniors
31/2 stars out of 5