Chess was beaten and abused by her husband until the day she killed him, leaving her 3 year old daughter “without a mother or a father”. Our story picks up a decade later with Chess is serving a life sentence in a women’s prison in South London. Her story is romantic, it is funny, it is devastating, and it is full of love. It takes 90 minutes and 5 actresses to tell this story.
An all female cast tells the story of Chess, an incarcerated woman who is serving 25 years to life, as she discovers her redemption in her own music, encouraged by famous music producer and ex-addict Silver. Chess relies on her cellmate (and great romantic love), Serena, to find meaning in her seemingly meaningless life. When Serena is released from prison leaving Chess alone, Chess is sucked into the darkness and must pull herself out.
All three characters confront their fear of maternal failure:
Chess hasn’t seen her daughter since she was 3, and after 10 years grapples with the real fear that her daughter will repeat her path towards jail or end up “either on the gear or the game”. Serena fears getting released and being responsible for her young children when all she’s seen is “violence and dread”, and Silver admits that after years of addiction her sons only know her as “Auntie”.
But, the show isn’t a numbing experience. It’s very funny and the moving lyrics and music is written by the prestigious Ted Hughes award-winning rapper and playwright, Kate Tempest. Hopelessly Devoted is as committed to expressing joy as it is to forcing the audience to face the devastating reality of life in prison.
This production has a direct mission statement to reach and support the women of Cook County Jail. The director, Abby Pierce, has taught theater to maximum security inmate women with Ensemble Place in Cook County Jail (EPIC) for 4 years. The playwright, Kate Tempest, based the play off her own experiences of doing music workshops in women’s prisons in London. A semester with EPIC was dedicated to studying and performing scenes from Hopelessly Devoted. We were able to bring our production to the jail and do a performance for the good women there. It was a life-changing experience. That performance captured representation, authenticity, and accessibility for communities that need the transcendent power of theater in a meaningful way.
There have also been sheriffs, judges, community organizers, Cook County Jail staff, defense lawyers, and religious leaders that have attended the show and used it as a jumping off point to address the inhumane conditions of incarceration.
This play reaches far beyond the standard theater audience, has sparked real change, has touched the silent and ignored women it is about, and is steeped in the authenticity of the artists’ experiences in jail.
Bringing Hopelessly Devoted to Cook County Jail
“That’s me. That is my story.”
‘I am Chess.” “I am Serena.”
One EPIC player came up to myself and actress Nicole Haskins and said, “I’m not ashamed to share with you that I am in here for the same reason Chess is. When we worked on the scenes, I didn’t realize she had killed her husband. I was abused by my husband, too. It took me being in here and then taking these acting classes to realize that I was always worth more than that. I didn’t see it out there. But I’m on my journey, and this is a part of my soul.”