Motus Theater Receives NEA Grant to Support Criminal-Justice Works

Michael Ensminger
JustUs monologists narrate stories of their experiences with the criminal legal system.
In an online program last month, Motus Theater collaborated with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Conference on World Affairs to present two monologues delivered by formerly incarcerated people. A third story, written by Colorado Springs CommunityWorks Vice President Juaquin Mobley, was read aloud by Dean Williams, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections.

“It was an awesome opportunity for not only people at the Conference on World Affairs to learn about Mobley’s experience of the dehumanization and violence that he experienced in prison, but they had the pleasure of hearing Dean Williams — who’s trying to do reform — hold closely that experience and negotiate the grief of the gap between what his vision is and what continues to happen to people in our prison system,” says Motus artistic director Kirsten Wilson.

Motus recently announced that it has received a $40,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support JustUs: Stories From the Frontlines of the Criminal Justice System. Because it is a matching grant, Motus will need to raise an equivalent amount to secure the money. The funding will allow Motus to cultivate new and diverse monologists through its workshop program, while bringing its programming to broader audiences free of charge.

Mobley, who worked in tandem with fellow monologists for seventeen weeks under the guidance of Wilson, called the experience of writing his story “cathartic.” “We grew up in a rough environment, so we were very uncomfortable with letting our guard down and essentially being vulnerable,” Mobley says. Workshopping and writing, he adds, “helped us develop into better men and women.”

Mobley is vice president of CommunityWorks, a Colorado-based social enterprise that helps those who are unemployed and who suffer barriers to employment with job training and placement. The program was founded as DenverWorks in 1995; Mobley went through the program and felt like there were aspects he could improve upon, having experienced it firsthand. He was authorized to expand the operation to Colorado Springs.

“At CommunityWorks, we have a 2.5 percent recidivism rate, which is considerably low. What the state offers is about 49 percent,” Mobley notes. He attributes the success of the program to the fact that most of the CommunityWorks staff have been personally affected by the criminal legal system.

While Mobley is a recognized community leader today, his monologue details how structural inequities prevented him from succeeding earlier in life.

“My monologue is about the trouble I got in at a very young age," he says. "When I was trying to change my life, I was looking for opportunities and employment — but I was unable to find employment because of my background. I looked and looked and felt hopeless. I allowed it to put me in a negative space, which pushed me into committing a crime, in which I came out to Colorado Springs to visit and got a fifteen-year prison sentence."

Mobley says that his monologue “is really highlighting the lack of resources and opportunities within our community. They say you’re a product of your environment. Some of us fall victim to that — and unfortunately, I chose to fall victim to that.”

“My monologue talks about how I took my fifteen-year sentence and I was preparing myself, and once released, I almost fell flat again, just because there were still no resources,” Mobley continues. “There are a lot of nuances that go into what makes a person break the law. Contrary to what people believe, we’re not born this way. I don’t know anybody — and I grew up in a really rough environment — that woke up and wanted to break the law.”

Mobley believes that having his monologue read by key figures, such as the district attorney of Denver, has spurred real conversation.

“They’re constantly now trying to figure out ways not to make it an issue of arresting people, but of empowering these communities as a preventative measure,” he says.

Wilson is currently leading a new cohort of monologists in workshopping their stories. In the first JustUs group, only one person identified as female; this new group consists entirely of formerly incarcerated women.

“Just as we like people who have committed a crime to take responsibility for the harm they’ve caused, the intention of this project is to repair harm," says Wilson. "We ask the criminal legal system to sit in circle with our monologists, audiences and leaders, hear these stories and hold them close, and see how we can repair the harm that’s being done right now in the name of justice."

For more information about Motus and the NEA campaign, go to the organization's website.