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Any one of us

Humboldt State alumni gives voice to incarcerated women in play

On an overcast afternoon with lightly peppered rain, the Siren’s Song Tavern in Eureka doubled as a rehearsal stage for the upcoming play “Any One Of Us: Words From Women In Prison.” Humboldt State University alumni and activist for formerly incarcerated rights, Vanessa Vrtiak, will direct Eve Ensler’s production for the second time in Humboldt County. The press release states the play “is a collection of stories from formerly and currently incarcerated women from across the nation moving forward toward healing, understanding and change with the goal of using their writing and voices to impact policy, laws and treatment of incarcerated women.”

“These women are not defined by their crimes, but we hear news of some horrific crime and define someone solely on that,” Vrtiak said. “These issues trickle down and almost make re-entry impossible. We label constantly because it’s so easy to cast stones before we know who they are.”

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Caterina Keen, Megan McAllister, Michelle “Chelly” Purnell, Vanessa Vrtiak, Nezzie Wade, and Klark Swan at rehearsal for the play “Any One Of Us” at Sirens Song Tavern. | Photo by T. William Wallin

Vrtiak first directed the play in 2011 with five shows and is excited to be creating it again. After rehearsal she said it feels more intense than before because of where the state of the country is, but believes it’s the right time to be performing.

“What these women have been subjected to it’s amazing they’re even alive to be incarcerated.”

Nezzie Wade

“Still after all this time there’s a lack of support and resources for formerly incarcerated individuals in the community,” Vrtiak said. “I know how powerful and poignant this play is. It’s dark but there is hope in this play.”

Community activist and founder of the Affordable Homeless Housing Association (AHHA), Nezzie Wade, has performed with Vrtiak before and said the acting in “Any One Of Us” uses criminal justice dialogue to bring light to all of our systems of court and prosecution. The stories are heavy and link the correlation between women in prison and the violence they have endured.

“Peeling back the layers of these women is very moving,” Wade said. “But what these women have been subjected to it’s amazing they’re even alive to be incarcerated.”

Wade, who works closely with the homeless population in Humboldt County, said we use incarceration as a tool to manage and store people and this play sheds light on our current system.

“It’s become so easy to dehumanize people and detach,” Wade said. “We want a community that cares deeply about the situation.”

Actress and HSU alumni Michelle “Chelly” Purnell agrees with Wade and said she is acting in the play because there aren’t many people of color in Eve Ensler’s plays.

“They aren’t intersexual in Humboldt County,” Purnell said. “There should always be a person of color in those works because there isn’t any.”

For Purnell this play reaffirms how important art and activism is to allow voices to be heard.

“Art is activism in every shape and form.”

Michelle Purnell

“We don’t think about how people get to where they are,” Purnell said. “We need to ask: ‘What has happened to them that we could have changed?’ Art is activism in every shape and form.”

Vrtiak said this play will be a kick-off for a bigger project in the community and is only the beginning. She is starting Humboldt County Re-entry Initiative, a non-profit that will benefit formerly incarcerated individuals in the community.

“The money from the play will go to formerly incarcerated individuals to be reintegrated back into the community,” Vrtiak said. “We have a lot of work to do in the community with incarceration, homeless, people of color and the list going on and on and on.”

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Nezzie Wade, Michelle “Chelly” Purnell, Vanessa Vrtiak, Megan McAllister, Caterina Kein, at rehearsal for the play “Any One Of Us” at Sirens Song Tavern. | Photo by T. William Wallin

“What we say on stage helps the community to engage and understand what happens in the criminal justice system,” Wade said.

Performance Dates:

March 23, 7 p.m. at The Sanctuary in Arcata

March 24, 5-9 p.m. at The Sanctuary in Arcata

April 5, 7-9 p.m. at the Siren’s Song Tavern in Eureka

April 19, 6-9 p.m. at the Eureka Women’s Club, the dinner starts at 6 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m. *This show includes a dinner*

General Admission: $12, $10 with a valid student ID

The April 19 show is $25, which includes a dinner before the performance.

Tickets on sale: Feb. 1, at Wildberries Marketplace.

Tickets are also available online at: brownpapertickets.com

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