To get to Marysville, you travel northeast from Dayton, easing off the interstates onto a highway that becomes a two-lane road, traversing acres of farmland, fields of grey-brown corn stubble punctuated by occasional homes and outbuildings.
I am on a bus with 46 other members of MUSE, Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir, and we're headed for prison: the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. We're singing for the inmates, and a current of unease runs underneath the animated chatter and the snacks passed up and down the aisles.
Like all MUSE run-outs, this one is grounded in the choir’s philosophy to “strive for a concert experience that entertains, inspires, motivates, heals and creates a feeling of community with our audience.” MUSE has not performed for prison audiences since 1993. Even though it’s been 17 years, the intensity of that experience continues to resonate for MUSE veterans and especially our director, Dr. Catherine Roma.
At that time, the Ohio Unity Choir, directed by Bishop Todd O’Neal from the House of Joy, joined MUSE for performances at Marysville and the Franklin Pre-Release Center in what Roma describes as “an explosive, volatile, exciting and unforgettable experience.” The Marysville audience was wall-to-wall and “85 percent African American,” she recalls. When O’Neal led a series of Gospel numbers, the inmates responded with a fervor that was by turns inspiring and unsettling.
It must have been. Seventeen years later, Gospel music is on our program, along with a directive that emotional fervor on our part won’t be allowed. The entire program — music, lyrics and introductions — has to be approved by the deputy warden. There are other directives: no suggestive clothing (as if, on a freezing cold day), no socializing other than shaking hands.
“It looks like a college campus,” I think, as the bus enters the parking lot.
A large grey stone building with a white cupola, smaller red brick buildings, all surrounded by razor wire. According to the prison’s Web site, 1,753 inmates are white and 746 are African Americans. More than 1,000 women are listed as “level one” security. One woman is on Death Row.
We line up for security checks and the personnel are pleasant and friendly as we surrender our licenses for badges. Five at a time, we’re sent through a door leading to the main yard and told to “turn left.” We go out, turn left and look at each other. There’s no one in sight.
We find the gym at the end of a beige-tiled hallway that houses classrooms and looks like a '60s elementary school. A cheerful young woman greets us, offering to help, apologizing for the stifling heat. She’s an inmate.
Sound equipment is plugged in, accompanists Rachel Kramer and Steve Milloy unpack the piano, risers are set up and just as we’re arranging ourselves, there they are. About 60 women are led in, all wearing green-collared denim shirts beneath blue parkas, accompanied by half a dozen staff, including Deputy Warden Becky Hoffman.
We warm up. When Donna Tramell begins one of her solos, faces come alive at the sound her rich, velvety alto. Dr. Roma only takes a few measures, but that’s enough to bring on an ovation.
As the program starts, I look at these women, our audience. I am struck by their ordinariness. They look like the women I see downtown, in the grocery, in my neighborhood. Many are chomping gum — the prison is a non-smoking facility. They could be my daughters and my grandmothers.
The first two numbers are well received, and then Roma quickly confers with Hoffman, who OKs a sing-along. They join us for Bernice Johnson Reagon’s setting of civil rights pioneer Ella Baker’s words: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it come.”
“I wonder how the warden felt about those lyrics,” a choir sister wrote in an e-mail.
Throughout the concert, women come and go without guards, who lounge on the bleachers. The Gospel numbers and spirituals get rousing responses, but what brings down the house is an old-school rap by Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Nitanju Casel and Aisha Kahlil:
Women … should be a priority.
Respected and upheld in society
Given all the proper notoriety,
Never used or abused by authority.
They are all on their feet, stomping and cheering. We’re thrilled and scared that those authorities will call a halt. But they don’t.
We end with India Arie’s “There’s Hope,” and they give us a standing ovation. They start to file out, and suddenly a chorus of “Thank yous” pours out. One woman calls, “Have a safe trip home.”
There’s still one more song — as they’re heading for the doors, we sing,
I feel like going on
I feel like going on
Though trials mount on every hand,
I feel like going on.
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