Rebecca Ranson is a playwright living in North Carolina and is the coordinator of People's Art Action, a network of politically committed performing and visual artists. She taught writing and theatre in prisons for seven years, including two years at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women. This play is a tribute to the women at that prison.
Annie Brown, here.
Don't nobody know how old I am.
Shit, I mean I know how old I am but nobody wrote it down when I got born, so nobody knows how old I am.
Sounds stupid, don't it?
You should have been there the day I was having a hearing.
That was something.
My Mama birthed me at home and there wasn't no legal record of me.
The lawyer and the judge just stood there talking back and forth about it and I said, hey, listen since I don't exist if I ain't wrote down, then I'll just
split and your problem is solved.
I thought it was funny as hell. They didn't see the humor to it in any kind of way. Lawyer got hot with me, told me to be quiet.
My Mama would have thought it was funny too after birthing me and raising me and then they talk about was I using a alias and did I belong to somebody else.
I told them hell, no. I was grown and I belonged to myself.
I wished Mama coulda been there so we could of had us a laugh but see she was home keeping Nicey
Her name ain't Nicey
It's Denise but me and Jesse just called her Nicey
Mama was home with Denise.
I didn't want my little girl seeing none of her Mama in handcuffs and shit.
Jesse wasn't there either.
He was locked up over there to the men's penitentiary
doing four years for robbery.
He done two years already but for a while there he was always getting into them fights and now they think he's either mean or crazy.
Might be too
One or the other.
Prisons does that
See before I came I didn't know
Jesse told me
but I couldn't even imagine all the stuff you be going through in prison
the way people act and stuff
like it could make you crazy.
I ain't saying that the outside
outside of being in prison is easy
and inside prison is hard
It ain't like that
but in prison
I sleep in this big room
there's 20 of us on one side
You can't never be alone
Things always happening around you
jumping off you know
It ain't never quiet
unless you're in the box
Then it's so quiet
your own breathing scares you.
I been here six months.
Annie Brown, the convict.
I got two babies
Denise, she's almost four
She turn three and her Daddy was in jail
She be four soon and me and her Daddy both in jail
My Mama, she take real good care of Nicey
but Mama's old and she don't like a lot of noise and stirring 'round her
Nicey don't ever stay still
She practically come out of me strutting
She'd run the legs off a jack rabbit.
When Nicey was three
it was just me and I was sick so I'd been laid off work
I had applied for welfare
Looked like it just wasn't gonna come and then on Nicey's birthday, here come a check in the mail.
We got us a bucket of fried chicken
a big bag of coal for heat
and we ate and we were 'bout to burn up we were so warm.
That there was a happy day.
Sometimes your luck runs with you.
I talked to Nicey about Jesse all the time but I suppose saying Daddy didn't mean much, her being so little and all
We visited Jesse regular over at the prison but visits was limited to two a month and Nicey was short of memory
and Jesse would want to hold her so bad that she'd get scared of him and scream.
I could see the hurt in Jesse's eyes but it wasn't none of Nicey's fault.
She was just too little and she always got shy over to the prison.
I learnt a lesson from that.
I didn't want her coming here to see me
and me wanting to hug on her
and her squalling and calling my Mama her Mama.
I seen it.
I seen it just about to tear some of these womens half in two when their own flesh and blood sit there and say, "You ain't my Mama neither."
I write Nicey letters but I don't write so good and Nicey can't write back.
I call the house some too.
Nicey don't like talking on the phone so I mostly just talk about her to Mama.
She asked me one time, was I in prison? I said, "Yes, baby, for a while but I'll be home soon." And she said, "When is soon, Mama?" I busted out crying. Soon is a year away. That ain't soon.
My own little girl won't even remember her Mama.
You think that don't make you hate yourself, you got to do some more thinking.
My other baby won't ever know me
I give him up to the social worker so somebody else could adopt him.
When they arrested Jesse I was already working on his second baby.
Neither one of us knowed it.
See, like I was bleeding regular but I was feeling sick.
I missed so much work, Sam laid me off and told me to get myself well.
I washed dishes and waited tables for Sam in this dump he calls a restaurant.
I went to the doctor and he said I was gonna have a baby.
I thought I would die right then.
Jesse in prison and me out of a job and the doctor said I had to stay off my feet until the bleeding stopped. He told me to go to the welfare and they would help me out until I could go back to work.
I didn't want no damn welfare.
I seen enough of them snooty ladies come poke around, acting like they was afraid something dirty might touch them. I guess some of them are nice but I musta got the hatefulest bitch they had. I had Nicey with me and I said to her that I needed some help and the social worker said, "Where is the father of that child?" and I said, "Her Daddy is in prison," and she said, "Mrs. Brown, have you ever thought of getting a job?"
She said it like it was some new idea she just thought up.
When I told her I got laid off, she raised up her eyes and sighed and asked me if it was inconsistency at reporting to work that got me laid off, and then she didn't wait for an answer and started talking about how she had to come to work every day and come on time or they would take her job away too.
I was so mad.
Hadn't nobody ever talked like that to me before except my own Mama and I didn't expect to have to listen to no white social worker talk at me so I cut into what she was saying and told her I was pregnant and having woman troubles and had to stay in bed awhile. That shut her up a minute and then she smiled and asked who the father of this child might be.
I gave her the meanest look I could.
I been told I can look mean when I got a mind to.
My husband, the Daddy of this child in my belly."
Nicey started crying.
She wasn't used to me yelling at people.
The welfare lady told me I was in a public office and I should lower my voice.
Then she told me quick that they would check me out and IF I was telling the truth then I would probably be eligible for a check.
I was crying and Nicey was crying when I left there.
No check come for two months and every time I stayed up a day, the bleeding would come back on me.
Me and Nicey moved in with Mama.
Wasn't nothing else we could do.
Mama didn't have room but she ain't the complaining kind
She's a religious woman
She always told me to trust in the mysterious ways of the Lord.
I decided a long time ago the Lord wasn't mysterious. If there was one, he was just plain damn mean and sorry and didn't care nothing about black people.
I never told Mama what I thought about the Lord.
She woulda thought I was sinning by saying that.
She give us a bed.
Wasn't no way she was gonna see no grandchild of hers out in the cold.
Jesse burned up my ears for me going to the welfare.
He said I didn't need no welfare cause I had a man and I said, "Baby, if I got one, where is he at?" and he screamed about how he was gonna bust my mouth wide open if I said another word.
Them seemed like the worst days of my life at that time.
I didn't know what more was coming.
Jesse started saying it wasn't no baby of his in my belly,
he was in prison.
I knowed he'd gone crazy then.
Jesse knew me that good that he shoulda knowed I wouldn't let no other man mess around with me. Jesse got me clean. He knowed that but his mind being in the penitentiary and all had got him to thinking in awful ways. He said it was cause so many men said they found their women been running on the street and lying to them.
"Jesse Brown," I said to him, "if I take to running any street, you will be the first one to know."
That day Jesse was sorry for what he said but then he started it back up a couple weeks later.
Before all that started to happening Jesse would be sweet to me and he'd say how lonesome he was for me.
I missed him terrible.
I had got used to sleeping snuggled up under his arm and I'd lie there and try to imagine his arm around me. Wasn't no use. Something ain't there, it ain't there.
I wanted a man but I wanted my man.
I wanted Jesse.
Some of them other men around started trying to sweet-talk me and asking me about how hard it was waiting for your man to come home. Sam was one of them too. Jesse would have killed him if he'd heard that. It was tough with Sam being my boss and all but I'd joke him and say, "When you got a man like Jesse, waiting ain't no problem."
I was young, innocent and dumb back then.
Jesse turnt on me completely.
Prison did it to him and he done it to me.
It still hurts.
Some wounds don't heal even if you know what caused them.
I was good to him.
I loved him.
We was happy before he went to prison and got changed.
Now I worry about me changing.
Is this time I'm doing going to change me like it done him?
Shit, it's changed me already
I just hope I can do the rest of it and get the hell out of here and forget it.
Forget Jesse too.
I don't ever want to see him again.
When Nicey was born I was hoping so hard for a boy so Jesse would have him a son.
Now I hope Jesse rots in hell before he gets a son.
He wouldn't never say that baby boy was his and he was.
I was too damn stupid to go running the street.
I hadn't never done nothing but be with Jesse.
I was gonna name the boy Jesse too.
I didn't even give him no name.
The social worker said it would be better if I just didn't think none about that baby at all.
I still don't know did I do the right thing or the wrong thing.
Seemed like there wasn't no choice.
My baby had to have him a Mama and there wasn't no way I could get out of here to be his Mama.
My own Mama had took sick and they took Nicey away from her, give her to my sister in Alabama who already got three children of her own. She give Nicey a home but she said she couldn't no way take another baby. So I give him up.
I never did like my sister. She was always uppity and contrary. I don't want Nicey living with her. Mama had to move up there too. When I call up, my sister don't do nothing but yell at me about how could I go robbing somebody and leave all my mess behind for her to clean up after.
I don't call her much.
I guess she got it hard.
I don't get no visits now that Mama is gone.
I got this prison family.
In my family I got a Mama and a grandmama and a baby sister.
Had me a husband too but I couldn't keep him.
We had to get us a divorce.
Ain't that something?
You know, you take the real world with you and you make it over again inside.
If all you got is womens, then you make do with what you got.
When I first come in, I listened to them women talking about so-and-so was their Daddy or Mama and I laughed in their faces. "That ain't no man," I'd say, "that's a pure-t woman if I ever seen one, even if she do chop her hair all off and walk like she got something between her legs. She just got what the rest of us got."
I couldn't understand it.
I wasn't here two days before this woman sided up to me and said she liked the way I looked and could we get us an understanding.
I give her a dose of plain understanding.
Later I was sorry.
Part of it is I got lonely wanting somebody to talk to and part of it is that when you get into that family thing, it's like them people starts to care about you. It gives you something to do, something to get your mind off prison.
The husbands is mostly for protection.
Outside if you ain't got a man, you ain't got nothing, and people walks all over you. Inside, if you got a husband then people don't be messing with you so much and your prison family gonna give you a cigarette when you out and a swallow of their soda. Don't sound like much maybe but when you're doing without, it counts a lot.
Theys a whole lot of talk about bull dagging but a whole lot is talk.
Sarah, she was, you know, she liked women all her life, before prison, and she wouldn't take truck with any of the goings on in here. She said that none of these women doing all the talking had any idea what loving a woman was about.
I liked Sarah, even if she was one of them kind of women. She kept to herself.
Nobody's business ain't everybody's business. That's what Sarah said.
I was so low
I don't think I ever been so down.
I was crying and I didn't even know what it was about.
It wasn't my time of the month or nothing,
and Sarah, she said, "Little girl, who been mean to you today?"
That made me cry more.
She put her arms around me and rocked me.
This may sound terrible and I don't care because it's the truth.
I asked Sarah to love me, you know, make love to me.
She cried then.
She wouldn't do it.
She said, "Hey, little girl, what then? I be falling in love with you and you just doing something to pass the time."
She got two joints and we got to smoking. We laughed all night long.
Sarah and me gonna be tight forever.
That there is something I know.
I didn't know anything about dope and drugs before Jesse went to prison.
Me and him bought us a bottle of wine once in a while.
Two glasses and I'd be high.
Jesse used to tease me about getting high if he passed the bottle under my nose.
We had us some good times. When you're that young and don't know nothing, you can really get happy.
In here I wouldn't say the wine or dope exactly makes me happy but it makes being here less unhappy. Takes your mind off it for a day or two while you figure out how you're gonna get some stuff and who you're gonna share it with and how you're gonna keep from getting caught. You know, it takes up time, planning all that, anticipating. Sometimes it's a real bust too. The good part
is looking forward to it and doing it ain't nothing.
You act crazy here and the infirmary gives you out free highs, thorazine.
There be some women in here that got to be crazy for real, like Mary, who don't want nobody to come in and use the toilet after she cleans it. She be ready to fight you if you try. They sent Mary to see this head shrinker and he give her lots of thorazine and she shut up. Now she can't even hold the brush in her hand to clean. We using some dirty toilets now too.
I couldn't do no time that way.
Jackie, she was beside me down to the city jail, when we was waiting to go to court. Jackie said she could do her time standing on her ear. What she meant was, laying on her back. The guards would come in and she'd unbutton her shirt down and lean against the bars and they'd come back around visitin' her with a pack of cigarettes and a cheeseburger.
There's every kind of people you can think of in here. I'm including them that work here too. Good and bad ones. The volunteers is a trip and a half. Most every kind of religion there is comes in here and some people think if you get a Bible in your hand they gonna let you go home. You can't count on nothing though. People wants to go home so bad they'll do or say anything.
I work in the kitchen and this woman working near me keep on talking about how she can't stand it no more so one day she chop off a finger just so she could go to the hospital downtown, just to get out of the gate and breathe her some free air.
I lay in my bed some nights and think about free air. Everybody says as soon as the gate closes behind you, you can suck in free air and it feels like different air. I hate nights. I'd rather be in that stinking kitchen. All them noises. People be moaning and havin nightmares and snoring. Down the hill they got cottages for when you work up to almost about to go home. They give you a room of your own. Some people say they sit up all night, scared to death of the quiet after having got used
to the noises. After I come up for review, I'll probably move down the hill.
She ain't died, not my Mama.
She ain't no such a thing.
My Mama is fine. I'll call her up. You'll see.
Don't go telling me that my Mama died while I'm here.
She ain't done it.
I don't have no Daddy but I got a Mama who loves me.
She don't write letters to me much. She can't write good. We had this Open House. Open House she brought me a devil's food cake with chocolate icing. My Mama knows what I like. My Mama, she sick but she wouldn't die. She just wouldn't. Nicey be there and my sister and Mama knows how bad I need to know she's there with them.
Oh my god.
My Mama up and died and they said I can't go to the funeral cause I'm in the wrong level and it's out of state.
I don't have nobody loves me no more.
Sarah, get me a joint, will you?
Let me tell you something.
You are looking at potential.
I got it.
Ms Estelle Jones says I got potential, that I can do whatever I decide to do with my life.
I told her I decided to leave this place then and she laughed.
I was dead serious.
If I got so damn much potential to be developing, I just ain't got the time to be laying up here in this prison.
It's the truth.
Nothing you can do with potential here unless what you supposed to be doing is finding out how crazy human beings are, and how bad and how mean they can get at each other because they don't like themselves either.
I didn't know anything when I came in here.
Now sometimes it seem like I know everything there is.
I don't mean book stuff. I mean about like real people and all.
I asked Ms Estelle Jones what it was I had potential to do and she said I was a leader, a natural leader, and could influence a lot of people because they listen to me, 'cause they know I don't just jump off on my own trip and talk to hear my own voice.
I said, "Okay, Ms Jones, tell me what to lead, how to use that potential I got."
It was nice to be told something like that but I swear I didn't have any idea what it could mean.
Got elected dorm representative, which means I take the bitching to the staff and ask them for help. It's not bad. It helps in little ways and then I got my G.E.D. and I started these courses at the technical institute. Best thing about them is that I get out of here two days a week even if I do arrive in the Department of Corrections bus. People look at you like you just might be gonna slit their throat or steal their bags and the men act like they know you always been on the corner down the
block from them. Still I guess if I got any potential to be able to earn my own living this will help.
Me and Nicey sure gonna need it when I get out.
I'm luckier than a lot of these women. Some of them ain't got the first idea how to read or nothing and they get stuck doing dishes and cleaning floors. I don't like saying it but some women just ain't never thought about anything, anything. And they be talking yap, yap, yap all the time, yap, yap, yap and keeping up with other people's business and not tending to their own. Nobody ever took up time with them.
Nobody ever asked them what they thought so they just didn't ever think. It makes you sick and it makes you mad at the same time. I'd like to jerk a knot into some of them, make them sit still for five minutes and think before they did something and got in more trouble.
Like, when I first come here, I thought I hated some of these guards more than anything. Now I don't even bother to hate. This whole place is so messed up that saying who is right or wrong about most stuff is impossible.
I got tight with this one guard. I have trouble sleeping at night and she was the night matron at the dorm and we'd talk about everything and nothing. Just talk. We was company to each other. We'd drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and talk about something besides prisons. I had me a real friend.
There was some complaints and they moved her out of this building, same way Sarah got moved. Nobody wants anybody to be tight with anybody else. Seems like people don't want anybody to be friends or ever be happy or talk about the world outside.
Some people don't ever see any choices.
I got this dream.
Hey, don't get me wrong. I ain't Martin Luther King. I wish I was. I think he really did have those dreams, that he saw this kind of world where people were interested in love and brotherhood and where they wanted to be glad about being good. I don't know nobody who wouldn't be ashamed to be told they were good. Good means stupid where I come from, means you don't have money and don't know how to get over, and you ain't nothing.
I got this dream though about how Nicey and me is gonna live in this nice apartment building and it'll have good heat and air conditioning. And I'll love Nicey all day every day and she'll love me. She'll forget her Mama used to be a convict.
That's some dream, ain't it?
There's some women already been home and come back. They say all them dreams you have in here are just dreams, nothing but dreams and don't nothing work out at all.
I hope that's not the truth.
Dreams and hope.
That's all I got.
I Am Guilty
First thing people always ask me is what I did to get here.
I tell them I got born.
That's how I got here.
I got born, same as everybody else.
I guess I'm guilty of my crime.
I know for sure it was my hand that reached in the cash drawer at Mister Mike's store. I was the one who ran out the door with that one-hundred and twenty-eight dollars in my hand. It was me. I did it. That makes me guilty. I was the one that Mister Mike, who I been knowing all my life, told the police about. I was the one who sat in the city jail for three months waiting for a trial. I was the one found guilty and sentenced to prison. I am the one that's guilty. I'm here, ain't I? That makes me the criminal beyond a shadow of a doubt.
I was guilty of a lot of things that day.
I was guilty of yelling at the welfare lady who told me she was sorry about my daughter having pneumonia and was I sure that Jesse Brown was the father of the baby in my belly because he told her he wasn't.
I was guilty of screaming at Nicey because she knocked a glass of orange juice on the floor and when my Mama slapped me for slapping Nicey, I was guilty of telling my own Mama that I hated her for ever having birthed me into being black and poor and having nothing. I was
guilty of denying my Mama, my people and wishing my unborn child dead. Then I was guilty of going and getting all the dope and wine I could beg from people I know, and using it all so I could march into Mister Mike's store and put my hand in his cash register and take the money, knowing that he knew me, knowing that he would turn his back on me because I've known him all my life and knowing he would tell the police but hoping he wouldn't. I barely got back to the house before the police pulled up and my Mama handed them back the money too, said she didn't want anything that wasn't due to her.
I told Mama a lot was due to her she didn't get. She cried and wanted to know from Jesus what she had done wrong. I told her to ask me, not Jesus. I told her she had no right to bring me into the world. She said . . . but I love you. You're my little girl.
So here I am.
My dead Mama's little girl with a little girl of my own.
I'm twenty-three years old, going on a thousand.
Annie Brown, convict.
Annie Brown, criminal.
Rebecca Ranson is a playwright living in North Carolina and is the coordinator of People's Art Action, a network of politically committed performing and visual artists. She taught writing and theatre in prisons for seven years, including two years at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women. This play is a tribute to the women at that prison. (1983)