An April 20 performance of “The Wait Room” in San Francisco
An April 20 performance of “The Wait Room” in San Francisco

Prison families’ painful experiences take flight in ‘The Wait Room’

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Jo Kreiter is a cutting-edge San Francisco choreographer whose aerial dance productions take heart-stopping dives into the most intractable social issues. Now that she’s won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship, she’ll be able to fly even higher with the creative work to which she is so committed.

“It’s very exciting, a peak award to receive,” Kreiter said by phone between rehearsals for her current production, “The Wait Room,” being performed in San Francisco this week and in Richmond next month.

The production, which tackles the issue of mass incarceration from the experience of families with loved ones in prison, is conceived as the first in a series Kreiter is calling the Decarceration Trilogy.

The work features an ensemble of six dancers performing outdoors on — and swinging on cables above — a rotating stage that wobbles like a coin dropped on the pavement.

Jo Kreiter
Jo Kreiter

“The set we built contains the metaphor for the experience that women feel when their husbands, partners, sons, fathers and other loved ones are incarcerated. You feel the floor dropping out from under you,” Kreiter said. “For us, and especially for women of color, that is a systemic experience.”

In developing the project, Kreiter partnered with the Essie Justice Group, a support and advocacy group for people whose partners are imprisoned.

“I am asking, with this piece, how can Jewish voices amplify the call for racial justice via an end to mass incarceration,” Kreiter said. Besides Essie, she has been working with the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc, Museum of the African Diaspora and Prison Renaissance.

“The Bay Area has a powerful network of prison reform activists,” Kreiter said.

Representatives from Essie participated in talkback sessions between audience and performers after a show on April 20, informing the audience that one in four women in the U.S. — and one in two black women — has or has had a family member in prison.

Kreiter’s induction into the experience of “secondary incarceration” — the term for family members living in proximity to imprisoned loved ones — came unexpectedly when her husband suffered a mental health crisis that resulted in a sentence of six years in federal prison. Kreiter was already a professional dancer and choreographer, having founded her San Francisco company, Flyaway Productions, in 1996. When her husband was sent away, she was left to carry on and raise her very young son on her own.

“The experience radicalized me,” she said. “I have come to understand the call for the abolition of the prison system as it exists today. I have come to understand the difference between accountability, and mass incarceration.”

I am asking, with this piece, how can Jewish voices amplify the call for racial justice via an end to mass incarceration.

In “The Wait Room,” the six dancers attempt to embody (as dancers do) the loneliness, shame and struggle that befall the women who are connected by bonds of love and family to those serving prison sentences. The sound score, composed by Pamela Z, is built around fragments of the interviews Kreiter recorded with women in this situation, as well as her own notes. Certain phrases, repeated again and again in juxtaposition with choral or other music, build to pointed and poignant expressions of the many indignities and difficulties they suffer in supporting their jailed men.

Some of the segments are titled “Visiting,” “Economics,” “Race,” “Shame” and even “This Is a Love Story.”

“It’s important to underscore that,” said Kreiter. She asked each of the women she interviewed, ‘How is your story a love story?’ “

“This is an important question,” she said. “It humanizes the women who are in relationships with people who are behind bars.”

Kreiter, a former competitive gymnast who majored in political science in college, is the only one among five choreographers receiving Guggenheim fellowships this year who is not based in New York, something she finds “striking.” The Guggenheim Foundation noted her “masterful use of place, an intersectional feminist lens and a body-based push against the constraints of gravity.”

In accepting the fellowship, Kreiter said, “I’ve spent 25 years building coalitions with women marginalized by gender, race, class and workplace inequities. I root public art inside the process of political change… using a defiance of gravity to subvert limitations, and claim public space as a proving ground for women.”

“The Wait Room,” 8 p.m. April 24-27, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m. April 27. At 1125 Market St., S.F., across from U.N. Plaza. Also 8 p.m. May 17-18 at 339 11th St., Richmond, next to East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. Free.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.