Incarcerated women tell their story

Rhodessa Jones presents Once Upon a Time in a Place Called Now

2 minute read
A group of five women in all white, expressive, thrash about on stage
‘Once Upon a Time in a Place Called Now’ creates “a path out of this place with our histories, our stories.” (Photo courtesy of Painted Bride.)

If you’ve wondered how the arts can benefit incarcerated women, the debut performance of Once Upon a Time in a Place Called Now at Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, on Saturday, June 17, is a strong example. Directing the performance is also the show’s creator Rhodessa Jones, founder of Theater for Incarcerated Women/HIV Circle. The show is about incarcerated women who share their stories of how they ended up in prison. The cast consists of both actors and former inmates.

Telling your story

Parts of this show were performed in other cities, but this version and the stories being presented at Painted Bride will be a world debut. For over 30 years, Jones dedicated her time to helping incarcerated women find their artistic voices. “It was unexpected,” said Jones.

In the 1980s, Jones was living in California where she was teaching the arts to preschool children. “The California Arts Council heard about my work so they asked me to teach aerobics to incarcerated women,” said Jones. The year was 1989. “Teaching them aerobics was such a challenge,” said the 74-year-old Jones. “What did this have to do with their issues, their pain, and their anger? The women there were so depressed, so overweight. They didn’t want to do aerobics.”

Jones thought of a better way of helping them. “I started telling them my own story,” Jones said. “I was a mother before I was a woman. I had my first child when I was 16, and these [incarcerated women] were fascinated. Some asked me, ‘Why are you telling us your business?’ I told them that I was interested in creating a path out of this place with our histories, our stories.” The inmates began to tell Jones their stories. They talked about what happened to them. It became an incredible circle of women.

Felirene Bongolan, dramaturg of Once Upon a Time in a Place Called Now who also worked alongside Jones in prisons, learned that women who were incarcerated and those who never were still have common narratives. “They began to trust us when they learned that our stories were very similar,” said Bongolan. “It’s important to realize that the struggle of one woman no matter where she is, is the same.”

What, When, Where

Once Upon a Time in a Place Called Now. Directed by Rhodessa Jones. Pay-what-you-wish. Saturday, June 17, at 6pm at Painted Bride Art Center, 5212 Market Street, Philadelphia. (215) 925-9914 or


For accessibility questions or concerns, please call the Painted Bride box office at (215) 925-9914 prior to your visit.

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