Review: Award-Winning Audio Play "Supernova" Forges a Mosaic of Incarcerated Women's Stories


Written by Elizabeth Hawes

Directed by Bernadette Armstrong

Presented by the Open-Door Playhouse Podcast at

ESA/Hubble & NASA. Acknowledgement: Claude Cornen. Used under Creative Commons 4.0
Elizabeth Hawes writes in multiple genres and has won multiple PEN America Prison Writing Awards, including for her new audio play, Supernova. Incarcerated in the Shakopee correctional facility in Minnesota, Hawes has described her purpose in writing as "to bear witness, to advocate, to entertain," and Supernova achieves all three. Presented in two parts (debuting July 14 and July 21, 2021 and totaling about two hours and fifteen minutes) on the Open-Door Playhouse's website as part of its Prison Plays series, Supernova gives intimate expression to the experiences of women incarcerated by America's Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). This and Open-Door's other plays are available for free, but donations are welcomed.

Part 1 of the play opens with a collage of voices that offers a sense of the diversity of the women represented. After this, it resolves primarily into short narratives by single speakers and, less often, in conversations, although it also incorporates periodic PA announcements and even a dash of poetry and song. As the play's women speak about their experiences before, during, and, in some cases, looking towards after incarceration, the details of the stories are unique to each woman, but at the same time, we can discern patterns among these individual histories. They express feelings of disconnection from those outside, as well as feelings of powerlessness, especially an inability to protect their children or have some control over their lives (the play highlights the importance of recognizing the number of incarcerated women who have or, as significantly, have lost children). Many of their stories involve drug use, underscoring the way that the failed ideology of America's pointless "war on drugs" feeds into the PIC. One woman neatly sums up our hypocrisy when she points out that our society loves to say that addiction is a disease, but we don't lock up cancer patients. We hear about suicide attempts, intimate partner abuse, the inhumane regulations around giving birth as an incarcerated person or attending the funeral of a family member, and the effects of overcrowding (where, again, the cruelty of regulations comes into play).

Many of these same themes carry through Part 2, which opens similarly. Women confess their anxieties or anticipations regarding release and relay harrowing histories of multigenerational familial sexual abuse, mental health issues, and intimate partner violence. They criticize a PIC that incarcerates women for protecting themselves and then is more interested in profiting from them than in helping them; the police habit of pointing guns at children and pets; and the failure of the prison to meet their basic human needs, from menstrual products to health care. As in Part 1, much of this, again and again, comes back to or is bound up with children—from giving birth to custody struggles to the challenges of parenting from prison to the bad (or addicted) husbands and fathers left at home. One woman, a Native American, links what the PIC does to children both with the trauma and violence that this country has inflicted on people of color and their children throughout its history and to its current practice of effectively kidnapping the children of immigrants who cross the border extralegally. And in the end, the play makes a really effective closing shift in perspective that pointedly reframes the concept of "punishment."

Supernova also, though, sprinkles in moments of levity and even triumph, such as one woman's story of the positive ripple effects of her child custody struggle, another's pride at the fruits of her dumpster diving adventures, and another finding through a program that pairs her with a non-incarcerated person a support and connection that she has never previously known. The cast—Goreti da Silva, Sue Gisser, Rosemary Thomas, McKenna Koledo, Zelda Kimble, JayCee Porter, Gloria Tsai, Pat Loeb, Rhikki Asahi, and Gena Kay—does excellent work, with very naturalistic performances, excepting, perhaps, a somewhat exaggerated-for-comedic-effect privileged (white millennial?) inmate. With the explosive power of its namesake, Supernova comprises a nebula of vital voices whose stories are all too common yet all too commonly elided.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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