By Grace Rodriguez
The Department of Theatre Arts held an introspective interview with actress and activist Sabra Williams. Host, Venessa M. Pellegrini, took charge of asking pressing questions pertaining to Williams’ mission to apply the Arts in prison systems across America.
“You can teach an old dog new tricks,” a student said to Sabra Williams after taking her first class; the same class that made her realize she was at the precipice of change.
The actor, host and co-creator of the Actors’ Gang Prison Project, has a passion for the Arts and has dedicated her time to exposing the importance of using theatre to help people heal from trauma.
A brief biography for the actress can be found at https://elactheater.org/Sabra-Williams.
The renowned actress has been recognized by both, former president, Obama and the Queen of Elizabeth II.
Williams exudes confidence and begins the interview with a call-out and celebration of the resilience of African American people.
She reveals the path that led her to the creation of her passion project.
The prison project introduced theatre and arts to young prison inmates in an attempt to teach new and applicable, positive behaviors and reactions.
The project is the first of its kind. It has had more than 1,000 participants to date.
Williams does not believe in the corporate approach to resolving issues of this kind.
To sit around a table and talk about these issues is boring and useless to her.
Instead, Williams proposes that we “take the table and throw it out the window” in order to shift the focus on the performative arts.
The power of the arts can be enough to heal, she explains.
She stresses the importance of working alongside the men and women in prison as partners.
“It is important that we treat them as people” she said.
She goes on to explain that referring to them as anything other than people can add the prison mentality that perpetuates feelings of being trapped mentally, thus hindering healing.
The exposure to the incarcerated population is what motivated her to begin a program that would transform the way prisons reformed inmates.
It took a lot of experimentation and hard work to find something that worked.
But when it did work, she most definitely took notice.
Posed as games and activities, the end goal is to help individuals grow emotionally.
Williams said “we are trying to create a new path that doesn’t yet exist.”
It is only through working personally with inmates that she can begin to see the change that is long overdue in American prison systems.
She offers workshops, VR activities, programs and anti-racism training to inmates.
Her work doesn’t stop there, she offers her services to correctional officers as well, who in her opinion, are another gang that is in a constant state of ‘fight or flight.’ “Correctional officers suffer from a high suicide rate, strokes and heart attacks,” she says, showing her that they too must be in dire need these services.
She alludes to part of the problem being the fact that prisons are hierarchical systems.
She even shares that after not being allowed past security detail in a prison to teach her class— due to having a non existent metal implant, she changed her approach.
“The only way to beat the hierarchy is to play it against itself.” she said.
She began making friends in higher places.
If security was the issue, she called the warden and if the warden was the issue she called the head office in Sacramento, she explained.
She involves her philosophy in her work, the people she works with are offered equal pay and equal input, a stark contrast to the hierarchy that exists in many workplaces.
June 6, 2006 marked the first day of her first prison reform class.
By the end, she distinctly remembers receiving positive feedback directly from her students.
“This is the first time that we have been treated like humans,” one of them said to her.
Arts advocacy is important to Williams and she believes people are unaware of the power of art.
She also stresses that artists’ begin to focus on the craft as opposed to the aesthetics and money behind art.
Williams backs this call to action, by explaining she has had a better time becoming an artist than “chasing fame.”
Shakespeare seems to be an inspiration to Williams. Although she recognizes there is racism in his work, she believes he might have also been an ally. Regardless, she particularly likes the fact that his stories are still relevant to this day.
She is currently working on a new book called, “Beauty in the Beast.” More information on this can be found on her websites, https://www.sabrawilliamsacts.com and https://www.creativeacts.us.