On Saturday, Jan 25, the non-profit organization Women Determined put on a production of their play, Released to Nowhere, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. The play, which was written by, directed by and starring the organization’s founder and director, Rhonda K. Oliver, details the struggles of women who are just released from prison and attempting to make their way back into the world. With a cast made up of previously incarcerated women, the play shows the audience a firsthand account of the things that women face when reentering society, one which comes from Oliver’s own experiences. As part of a larger fundraising effort, this play aims both to educate and support formerly incarcerated women through the Women Determined mission.
“Our mission is to help formerly incarcerated women with transitional housing to be on the pathway to success,” says Oliver. “We provide housing with no charge to them. And that housing is available for them for one year so that they can get back on their feet and be productive citizens.”
In addition to providing recently released women rent-free housing, Women Determined also provides packages of essential everyday items ( called “start-over bundles”) and offers stipends to volunteers who help beautify vacant lots as part of their Adopt-A-Lot program. The Released to Nowhere event, which is held at churches and schools, intends to support all these programs, and through this, support those that Women Determined houses.
“The play is how we fund the [transitional] house,” says Oliver. “It’s a fundraiser, and we also inform. So many people do not know that this problem exists. And we just want to tell the story, and to educate the audiences that we have the opportunity to perform before.”
The play follows Rhonda (the character) as she tries to adjust to life outside of prison, but quickly learns the system is stacked against her. All the events depicted are true to Oliver’s life. This, she believes, makes the play even more relevant.
“[The play] came to me because it was me,” says Oliver. “It was me, and I was someone who was actually in need of the services that I’m providing, and they weren’t available. Being that they weren’t available, I decided to take action so that they can become available through Women Determined.”
In the story, Rhonda tries to find housing at a shelter, but learns that they only allow people who have previously struggled with substance abuse, which she has not. Then, she tries a homeless shelter but is turned away because she has, technically, not yet lived on the street. Later, in the Q&A part of the event, Oliver goes on to elaborate that homeless shelters traditionally look for official letters confirming that someone has seen the applicant sleeping on the street. Later, Rhonda’s friend finds a place to stay with her mother, but has to leave so that her mother can keep her house. As Oliver explains, it is illegal for a formerly incarcerated person to live in government housing.
Although bleak, Oliver’s story ultimately ends on a positive note as Rhonda decides that she won’t give up and go back to prison, even though she is guaranteed three meals a day and shelter there. She decides that, although it may seem like there is no other option for her, she won’t let herself go back to prison. And, she won’t let any other women go through her pain either. Thus Women Determined is born.
The play is shocking to audiences who may not understand just how hard it is to start a new life after prison with so little guaranteed. And although Oliver does want audiences to understand this hardship, she also hopes that they leave inspired by the work that Women Determined does to make the transition a little bit easier.
“I want [audiences] to be impacted about this real need that exists so that they can see there’s people, men too, but there are many women that are getting out of prison and can only find themselves back in [prison],” says Oliver. “We want them to be impacted about a story. And so far so good. We’ve been able to reach people with this play because it’s real and it’s a story that needs to be told, and what better way to tell it then through theatrical arts?”
The next performance of Released to Nowhere will take place on Saturday, March 30 at 6:30 p.m. at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Belle Chasse LA. Additionally, students are encouraged to organize a showing of the play at their church, or even on UNO’s campus, by contacting Women Determined at 504-388-9693. They can also help by donating to the organization’s dollar drive at https://www.womendetermined.org.
“It’s important that people come together and hopefully give to a great organization such as this one so that we continue to do the work that is so much needed,” says Oliver. “You know society as a whole doesn’t do anything to help these ladies get back on their feet, and you just can’t get back on your feet and start rebuilding your life if you have nowhere to go.”