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Women Behind Walls
Dave Lepori

Lineup: The women of 'Women Behind Walls'

'Women Behind Walls' looks at the lives of women prisoners

By Bernice Yeung

The San Jose Multi-Cultural Artists Guild's new production, Women Behind Walls, is a sociological study of five female prison inmates. This compelling drama invites audiences to scale the mental wall dividing the prison underworld from the "outside" in order to look honestly at the women behind prison bars.

Santa Cruz poet and playwright Claire Braz-Valentine, who teaches writing classes at Chowchilla Prison, based Women Behind Walls on the real-life experiences of women she met at the central California prison facility. Because the drama is grounded in reality, it successfully captures the complexity and diversity of its imprisoned characters.

The inmates range from a very Catholic woman (Maria L. Mendoza) who unknowingly smuggled drugs across the Mexican/American border to a crass, sexually crazed prostitute (Devon Rowland) to a spoiled all-American girl from Bel Air with a drug addiction (Kristan Tweten). From ethnicity to upbringing, each woman possesses depth and a fully fleshed-out life story.

The play subverts the stereotype that all convicts are just naturally depraved. In fact, Braz-Valentine blatantly portrays the imprisoned women as victims rather than criminals. Two of the characters were imprisoned unfairly; watching these two women angrily accept their fate and express their regrets provides the most poignant moments in the play.

Women Behind Walls weaves together group interaction with monologues from each character. Despite their varied backgrounds, the characters find common ground in their womanhood while still offering different perspectives on issues such as abortion, motherhood, racism, sexism, sexuality and freedom.

Though the writing can sometimes resemble that of a dime-store novel and the acting can be melodramatic, the play does have its wonderful moments. The women's banter about a hunky prison guard is the standout scene because the cast members' sincere laughter translates into genuine hilarity.

Women Behind Walls plays Aug. 8-9 at 8pm and Aug. 10 at 3pm at The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $10. (408/283-7142)

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