The new one-woman play ‘The Road to Damascus’ reinterprets the biblical story of Saul and the tale of Little Red Riding Hood as an allegory for white complicity in the US prison system and the possibility of redemption through anti-racism. Creator and performer Kathy Randels joins Rattling the Bars to discuss her new work.
Pre-Production: Frances Madeson
Studio Production: Cameron Granadino, David Hebden
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa. And today, I have a remarkable woman. I use these terms a lot: remarkable, extraordinary. But in this regard, she encapsulates all of these things: Kathy Randels. Kathy, welcome to Rattling the Bars.
Kathy Randels: Thank you so much, Mansa. It’s great to be here.
Mansa Musa: All right, Kathy. I asked you this off camera, and I was joking with you that it wasn’t going to be easy. How would you describe yourself?
Kathy Randels: All right. Something new comes out every time, right?
Mansa Musa: Always.
Kathy Randels: A preacher’s daughter from Bulbancha, which is the Indigenous name for what people know as the city of New Orleans. Was born and raised here. I am a mother myself to a 16-year-old named Emma. I’m a wife to Sean LaRocca. I’m a daughter to some ancestors who have already transitioned.
And I am someone who has worked inside the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women for 26 years. I’ve seen a whole lot that I don’t like, so I have made a performance piece that is trying to rattle the bars right now, Mansa.
Mansa Musa: And you know what? We going to rattle these bars. Because now, you took a subject matter and turned it into a play. And the subject matter you took in is called the road to Damascus. And in the road to Damascus, as anyone of a Christian persuasion know, the road to Damascus is where Saul, who later became Apostle Paul, who was a known persecutor of Christians. Matter of fact, on the road to Damascus, he had got permission to go find some Christians, bring them back, and kill them. He had just stoned Stephen.
Kathy Randels: That’s right.
Mansa Musa: And you chose the road to Damascus –
Kathy Randels: Yes, sir.
Mansa Musa: …As a form of generating a play. Give our audience an overview of why you chose the road to Damascus, and a little snippet of what the play is about. And on the heels of that, maybe you can grace us with some talent and music. How’s that sound?
Kathy Randels: That sounds beautiful. Thank you so much. Thanks for this opportunity to speak about it. I feel like the road to Damascus chose me. It was one of those moments where sometimes your intention as an artist is met with a calling from a divine source, or even a human source. In this case, I’ve been working on this piece for about three years now, and there were several things that were swirling around. One, on the political spectrum, was that last president who I don’t feel like naming right now.
Mansa Musa: He will remain nameless.
Kathy Randels: [Laughs] And especially being in Louisiana, I’m in probably the most progressive area of the state of Louisiana. And being a white person whose family has been in this country, settler colonizers for many years, with a tiny bit of Cherokee about seven generations back.
Yeah, I was very discouraged by the huge rise of white supremacy that was being not just condoned but sanctified under the last administration. And I came to something that I think Martin Luther King Jr. came to. He said it much more eloquently than me. But I really felt very deeply that racism is not something that we can legislate away. Racism is a spiritual disease.
And I really felt, having grown up in the church and having grappled with church and Christianity for years now – I’m in my mid-50s – I really actually felt like I wanted to go back to the church with this, and to challenge my fellow white Christians specifically on the role our church has played in creating white supremacy in all the systems of our country, but especially the criminal legal system. So that’s part one [laughs].
Part two is an amazing woman named Mama Glo Williams, Gloria Dean Williams. She was a member of the LCIW Drama Club for over 20 years.
Mansa Musa: And that’s the drama club you created?
Kathy Randels: Yeah. I started it. And I have many, many partners in the work throughout the years. My main co-director now is a woman named Ausettua Amor Amenkum, who’s also based here in Bulbancha, New Orleans. And yeah, Mama Glo is the woman who served the longest sentence in the state of Louisiana. She did 52 years at LCIW. And through another one of our graduates, a woman named Fox Rich, who some of y’all may have already met and heard of, she’s the woman who had a documentary film about her successful struggle to get her husband out of Angola called Time. That’s the name of their [inaudible], almost on –
Mansa Musa: Netflix, yep.
Kathy Randels: Yep, yep. Actually, it’s on Amazon, I think. Amazon, if y’all want to catch that. I’m a big rabbit chaser, so bear with me, Mansa.
Mansa Musa: Take your time. We having this conversation.
Kathy Randels: [Laughs] A sidebar about Fox is, she’s in a runoff to become our next congresswoman in the State House of Louisiana. So we’re excited about that.
But I want to come back to the time when Mama Glo was still in prison. After Fox successfully got our governor, John Bel Edwards, to sign her husband’s clemency papers, and when he was out, they were thinking about what they were going to do with their blessing of freedom. And they really felt called to help free more people. And they started a participatory defense movement chapter in New Orleans. It’s called PDMNOLA. They wanted to tackle a large case at the beginning, and spoke with Ausettua and I about any women in the drama club. And we were like, well, Mama Glo’s the one who’s been there the longest. And they were like, well, let’s try to free Mama Glo.
So we worked together to free Mama Glo. Many, many, many: her family; PDMNOLA; our organization called The Graduates, which is a performing ensemble of formerly incarcerated women out of LCIW; VOTE in New Orleans; many, many, many folks contributed to helping build a case for Mama Glo to be released. She was pardoned by the pardon board. And after two years was still waiting on the governor’s signature. And Fox is originally from a city north in Louisiana called Shreveport. And she shared with me one day that three Black ministers from Shreveport had a meeting with the governor – This was during COVID – Mama Glo had had COVID, and almost died from COVID. And they asked the governor what it would take for him to sign Mama Glo’s papers. And he said, a Damascus experience.
And I had been thinking about this piece already. I had been thinking about Saul/Paul’s conversion experience. Thinking about this idea that what all white people, but maybe even especially white Christians in America need is a major conversion experience, especially around prisons and the whole philosophy of prisons in our country. That was a Damascus experience for me, to hear that that’s what the governor felt like he needed. So when I first started really diving into making the piece, my intention was to perform it for the governor, so that he would see it and feel so moved to sign Mama Glo’s papers.
Mansa Musa: You know what? I like the way you took that when he said a Damascus experience, and he said that’s what he needed. But the thing is now, my question to you is, because we know the Damascus experience is the conversion of Saul into Paul. So when he said that, who did you think he meant to be converted? Him or Mama Glo?
Kathy Randels: [Laughs] I think he was talking about himself.
Mansa Musa: So he was saying in essence – And you can follow me out on this – That he would have to see something in his thinking that would make him have compassion towards Mama Glo. All right?
Kathy Randels: That’s [inaudible].
Mansa Musa: I heard what you said about performing it, that that would be the performance. And if you would’ve been able to see it out, had the performance, had it for the governor, he see the play, he had a conversion, he cut Mama Glo loose, we ride off into the sunset, everybody happy. But how did you see it in terms of the reality? Because that ain’t happened. But how do you see it in terms of the reality, of having this information out there? And maybe he could see it and have that conversion? Or if he didn’t see it, others would see it and be converted to have him converted.
Kathy Randels: Right.
Mansa Musa: You follow me out?
Kathy Randels: Totally. Totally. Well, and then the curve ball is that he finally did have his Damascus experience and he did sign Mama Glo’s papers before I finished making the piece.
Mansa Musa: Okay.
Kathy Randels: Halfway through making the piece, one of the initial intentions of it went away, so I had to rethink what I was doing with the piece. And just on the governor, I will say that he has released a lot of women. Something historic is happening in Louisiana right now. Releasing Mama Glo, he has signed, I think… I’d have to talk to Ivy Mathis from VOTE, who’s really keeping track of all of this, but he has released at least somewhere between 12 and 15 women within the last six months.
Mansa Musa: Okay. So he has been converted. I’m thinking about Isaiah 61, saying what, the spirit of the Lord is upon me. So what, the spirit of the Lord is upon him?
Kathy Randels: Yeah. We could use a little more spirit [Mansa laughs]. There’s a whole lot more people on his desk still.
Mansa Musa: A whole lot more spirit gotta be having.
Kathy Randels: Yeah. We need a little more spirit. But no, we’re in a “red state”, Mansa.
Mansa Musa: I know exactly where you’re at.
Kathy Randels: And who gets into that position next is scary. We’re looking at… Anyway, don’t let me go down that road!
Mansa Musa: Hey, but Kathy, talk about this here. Okay, let’s go and unpack, why drama? In DC they had a group in Lorton. Lorton was the major maximum security prison in the District of Columbia, where I’m at presently. And they had a group down there called the Inner Voices of Lorton.
Kathy Randels: Nice.
Mansa Musa: And the Inner Voices of Lorton, they used drama. And to get out of the prison, they had to get Richard Nixon, of all people, to sign their pardons. And Richard Nixon pardoned quite a number of them as a result of the Inner Voices of Lorton.
Chris Hedges, he is a known author and professor, wrote a book and conducted and dealt with plays that had men look at themselves and be able to unpack their trauma through a drama. But my question to you, what made you, one, look at this as something that could be used?
And two, why did you think that it would be helpful in an environment where there was so much trauma, degradation, a whole lot of ills going on as a result of the system that they inflicted on these women? What made you think that this right here, your method, would really have an impact on helping them, and ultimately having a Damascus experience that resulted in 12 women being released to this day, or more?
Kathy Randels: Well, when I started the drama club, I had just graduated from college. I was, I guess, about three years out of college in my mid-20s. And I had just moved back home to Louisiana. But I went to university at Northwestern in Chicago. And I had made a solo performance piece. I was a performance studies major. So theater has been my talent, my gift, my calling from age 12. And I’ve studied it and practiced it all my life.
My final performance for my senior project was a piece called Rage Within/Without that was about anger, aggression, and violence in women. Which was something that, as a white Southern Christian woman, I was not encouraged to express my anger growing up. Taking women’s studies classes and also studying theater in college really got me thinking about that. That got me thinking about what emotions do I have access to? And what emotions have I closed myself off from, or not even been invited to experience?
Then three years after I did that performance, a dear friend of mine, Ruth Carter, was working with some lawyers on the Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women in Illinois. That was back in 1994.
Mansa Musa: That’s right.
Kathy Randels: And we’re still dealing with this, right?
Mansa Musa: Mm-hmm.
Kathy Randels: But one of the professors had seen my performance. And I told her that I really wanted to meet some of the women who had killed their abusers to have… My piece was very much based on books. It was a college academic piece. And I really wanted to meet women who had gone through these experiences. So I met them, and I incorporated two of those women’s stories into Rage Within/Without.
One of the women that I interviewed, I told her I was going back to Louisiana, and she kind of put the finger on a third eye. She was another Damascus moment. She said, well, Kathy, when you go back home, you need to work with the women down there. And I was like, okay. I had no idea how I was going to do it. But I wrote a grant, it was a small NEA grant, and I said that I would perform Rage Within/Without at LCIW and do a six-month workshop afterwards.
I got the grant. I hadn’t talked to anybody at LCIW. Again, the divine channel opened, and the person I called was Lorraine Gibson, who was an incredible social worker. She really believed in serving and helping the women at LCIW, not in punishing them. And she thought this was a good idea. She let me come in, did the piece, did the six months. And then a woman named Cheryl Keahey, who is an ancestor now, put the finger on me and said, now Kathy, you know you can’t leave.
Mansa Musa: Oh yeah.
Kathy Randels: [Laughs] And I said, okay.
Mansa Musa: Hey Kathy, now while we got a little time left, give us an overview of what The Road to Damascus is.
Kathy Randels: Okay. So the subtitle is As Told by Grandmother to Little Red. Grandmother is an incarcerated woman, and in many ways, she’s modeled after Mama Glo – She’s been incarcerated for over 50 years. Little Red is her granddaughter, a teenager, in many ways modeled after me. Saul is the prison guard, and the wolf is… Hmm, I was trying to describe the wolf yesterday. The wolf is the natural order, divinity untampered with by humanity. So the story tells these four characters and how they intersect.
And maybe now would be a good time, if I may, to sing. There’s an opening song I think lays out the themes that are then explored more deeply in the piece.
Mansa Musa: Oh yeah, most definitely. Yep.
Kathy Randels: Is that okay?
Mansa Musa: Yeah, most definitely. Yes.
Kathy Randels: All right. [Tuning instrument] Sorry about that, y’all.
You must pay the rent
But I can’t pay the rent
You must pay the rent
But I can’t pay the rent
You must pay the rent
But I can’t pay the rent
I’ll pay the rent
Curses, foiled again
Perpetrator, victim, savior
Can I just play all the roles for you tonight
Will you let me do that?
Can you find all the parts inside of you?
Can you find the moments in your life
When you’ve played all the parts?
Predator, prey, savior
Wounded, wounder, wounded healer
Preacher, prisoner, sinner, judge, executioner
Can your life set another soul free?
Can another’s life set your own soul free?
Oh, walk with me
I’m on a journey
I’m going to the holy land
It’s far across the world
On the other side of the ocean
I’m going back even though I [inaudible] might fall off
Or get eaten by a wolf
Can you be my witness?
Oh, can you be my witness?
Oh, walk with me
Mansa Musa: Yeah. All right. [Applauds] Tell us where our viewers can get in touch with you, and where our viewers can support [inaudible] theater, this particular play.
Kathy Randels: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Mansa Musa: How they can get in touch with you.
Kathy Randels: Yeah, definitely. Y’all can reach out to me at Kathy, K-A-T-H-Y, @artspotproductions, with an S on the end, dot org [firstname.lastname@example.org]. And this piece, we just finished performing the piece here in Bulbancha, New Orleans. And we’re taking it to the state capital next, Baton Rouge, to a place called The Red Shoes. That’s going to be on March 11 at 6:00 PM.
Then we’re taking it to the Lafayette area on March 18. That location is still TBD. And then I’m coming up to the Northeast. Well, first The Graduates are going to be performing at the Beyond the Bars conference. I hope some of y’all can come to that at Columbia University. We’ll be performing on March 24, and Mama Glo will be with The Graduates for that performance. And it’s going to be her first time performing in New York. She’s also going to be giving a panel called Mama Glo’s Healing Circle on Sunday, March 26. That’s at 2:00 PM. That’s also going to be a part of that conference.
And then finally, The Road to Damascus in New York. We’re going to do it at Union Seminary in the James Chapel. That’s going to be on March 31 and April 1. And Mama Glo is going to speak after the piece with our audiences there.
So I think the best way to find out what’s going on is to come to our website, artspotproductions.org, or shoot me an email. And yeah. Thank you so much, Mansa. Thank you for following my tangents. I know I can travel all over the world with words, but you are an amazing, amazing spirit. I feel blessed to have met you here today, and I’m grateful for the work you’re doing.
Mansa Musa: It’s my honor. And we like to remind our Rattling the Bars viewers and listeners, that there you have it, The Real News about The Road to Damascus, a play by Kathy about conversion. But more importantly, a play about healing and uplifting us in our humanity. In this time and day and age, this is what we really need: an upliftment of our humanity. Thank you, Kathy, for being this remarkable woman that you are, and honoring us and gracing us with your song and with your work.
We ask that all our viewers and listeners continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. As you well know, our comrade, Eddie Conway, has transitioned. And we want to continue to invoke his memory and his good works by continuing this work on Rattling the Bars and The Real News. So we ask that you continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. Thank you very much, and thank you, Kathy.
Kathy Randels: Thank you so much. Y’all have a great day.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you so much for watching The Real News Network, where we lift up the voices, stories, and struggles that you care about most. And we need your help to keep doing this work. So please tap your screen now, subscribe, and donate to The Real News Network. Solidarity forever.