Theater has the power to address social crises, according to award-winning activist, artist, director and scholar Rhodessa Jones, who will be on campus this week as part of her role as a Rhodes Visiting Professor.
“[Rhodessa Jones] has been all over the world — Russia, South Africa, everywhere — informing people about the power of theater to intervene in social crisis and in particular, the prison industrial complex,” said Prof. Sara Warner, performing and media arts, the main organizer of Jones’s visit. “I was absolutely thrilled to nominate her for the Rhodes professorship at Cornell.”
As a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of 1956 Visiting Professor, Jones will be coming to Cornell annually for the next three years.
“One of the years that she is here, she will do a public performance because she’s also an award winning director and performer and a dancer,” Warner said. “She’ll be visiting several classes, talking about her work in South Africa and Russia and will be more actively involved with the prison education program.”
This week, Jones will be conducting workshops at Ujamaa Residential College on Monday and at Hans Bethe House on Wednesday, along with speaking at a public lecture titled “Creative Survival: Art and Activism for the 21st Century” on Tuesday and teaching a master class on Thursday.
Warner elaborated that creative survival is about how we can use art to save our own lives from crisis.
“Crisis aren’t things that happen to other people,” she said. “Take something like the Opioid Crisis — it’s affecting people from all ethnic backgrounds, from all class, all genders, all sexual orientations, all races. How can we save ourselves from this crisis? Art has some of the answers to that.”
Although she acknowledged that art alone can’t solve these larger social problems, emphasizing the need for public policies, money, treatment centers and resources, Warner added that “art can show us a way and its through storytelling in particular and allowing people, giving them the tools and stages to tell their stories.”
Jones will also be visiting the Auburn prison with members of the Cornell prison education program to talk about her work with incarcerated women, according to Warner.
Jones is the co-artistic director of Cultural Odyssey, a San Francisco performance company, and is the founder and director of “The Medea project: Theater for Incarcerated Women,” a performance workshop created to achieve personal and social transformation for imprisoned and HIV-positive women.
Warner first met Jones over 20 years ago when she was in graduate school in the Bay Area and attended one of the performances of The Medea Project, saying that experience “completely transformed my life.”
According to Warner, Jones’ visit to Cornell and the work she will be doing here is particularly significant because it conveys the institution’s goals as a land-grant institution.
“As a land- grant institution, Cornell is actively committed to bridging the divide and making sure that the knowledge we produce has a public purpose,” she said. “And that’s exactly the type of work that Rhodessa Jones does.”