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Actors perform a play titled “The Georgia Incarceration Performance Project Presents: By Our Hands” at the UGA Fine Arts Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in Athens, Georgia. The play was a cross-institutional project by The University of Georgia, Spelman College of Atlanta, Common Good Atlanta, librarians, students, professionals, archivists and incarcerated individuals; actors reenacted archival records from multiple departments within the Special Collections Library at UGA to reflect on the history of incarceration in Georgia. (Photo/Gabriella Audi, www.gabbyaudi10.wixsite.com/mysite-1)

In a rhythm of movement, sound and color, the performance of “By Our Hands” used the University of Georgia’s Special Collections  Libraries’ archives to tell the untold story of incarceration in Georgia. The production was performed by the Georgia Incarceration Performance Project and used dance, speech and song to move through history beginning with slavery. The message at the end depicted the impact of forced labor in American society. 

The performance, which held four showings from Nov. 8 to Nov. 17 at UGA is a collaborative effort between the university and Spelman College. Also involved in the program were students, librarians, archivists and incarcerated individuals. 

Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin and Emily Sahakian of UGA, as well as Julie B. Johnson and Keith Bolden of Spelman College, began assembling the bones of the project in 2018. 

Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin is an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies and at the Institute of African American Studies who uses her own methodology in her work to “perform the archive.” Through this, she takes “those exciting documents, newspapers, film strips [and] sheet music from the past” and uses them to interpret and understand history through performance. 

Sahakian, an associate professor jointly appointed in the Department of Theatre and Film Studies and Romance Languages, runs the community-based theater initiative at UGA which uses theater to form partnerships with community organizations. Sahakian is specifically interested in how performance can transform history. 

Together, Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin and Shakian chose to approach the topic of imprisonment. Their interest was sparked after they reached out to UGA’s Special Collections Libraries and discovered an exhibit on the convict lease-labor system in Georgia which is on display until Dec. 31.   

“The inspiration for every work that we’ve done within the Georgia Incarceration Performance Project has been the archive,” Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin said. 

While they were pulling together a team for the collaboration, Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin said there was a nation-wide strike by incarcerated “folks” against labor practices from August 2018 to September 2018.

“So the synergy of all of these various situations and scenarios and real life predicaments just showed us that it was the right time to collaborate and deal with this history,” Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin said.

With the help of Common Good Atlanta, cast members in the Georgia Incarceration Performance Project were able to read aloud and perform original work by incarcerated individuals. Common Good Atlanta’s mission is to provide access to higher education for those who are incarcerated, according to its website. 

Because the collaboration spanned so many institutions and departments, Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin said there were bound to be bumps in the creative journey. 

“That’s the beauty of learning, that’s the beauty of creativity,” Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin said. “The idea that anybody who strives to do what hasn’t been done before would have a smooth walk is not what innovation, creativity or risk taking look like.”

Keith Bolden, an associate professor in the Spelman College Theater and Performance Department, worked alongside Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin and Sahakian as the director of “By Our Hands.” Despite the differences and the distance between Spelman and UGA, the collaboration was a success, Bolden said.

As director of the performance, Bolden focused on acting and framing the story. He said he was amazed and honored by the Special Collection Libraries’ dedication to preserving history.

“I like how there’s little suggestion of narrative and people can come in they can look at the archives and they can create their own narrative,” Bolden said.