WENDY is an attractive 28-year-old who "had everything" going for her. But in 2008, she was caught smuggling cocaine from Brazil and today sits in the women's prison in Diepkloof, Soweto.
The young mother has often been paralysed by loneliness, "even though I was crowded into a cell with up to 40 women". But that's the peculiar thing about incarceration: while it breaks some, it makes others.
Wendy is among the women at "Sun City" prison who enrolled in the Theatre for Incarcerated Women initiative, run by the Medea Project and Urban Voices in association with the Department of Correctional Services. These "theatre as social activism" workshops have been run annually since 2008, guided by US arts envoy Rhodessa Jones and her Cultural Odyssey colleague, Idris Ackamoor, as well as local cultural practitioners.
Through letter-writing, movement, singing and sketches, inmates express their pent-up anger, frustration, sadness and fear through constructive creative channels. Jones calls it "teaching beauty, telling truth, creating revolution".
"In the beginning, I wasn't sure if I could do it, but it was a healing process," says Wendy. "I found myself and faced my demons. It saved me - I now have a totally different attitude about myself and my life. I have forgiven myself."
A recent visit to "Sun City" to experience this project in action proved an eye-opener: seeing ordinary-looking women of all races enthusiastically clapping, skipping, rapping and reciting their guilt, their memories, their hopes. One lamented living a "plastic life"; another regretted not giving more "teddy bear hugs" to her child.
I ask Henifah, a perky 23-year-old, what she's in for. She doesn't bat an eyelid : for murdering her philandering boyfriend in 2009.
Taking part in the theatre project has been a learning curve, she says. "I've learnt how to open up to other women and face challenges.. Life doesn't end here. Surrounded by these big walls," - she gestures to the imposing brick structure frowning over the courtyard - "we do dance, drama. It's us telling our own stories."
Henifah's friend, Smangele, jailed for killing the father of her children, says the workshops are about more than drama: "It's a support group."
The women gather around their mentors, including Motshabi Tyelele, Mmabatho Mogotsi and Caroline Campbell. Hugh Lewin, who recently won the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for non fiction, is also there - he was their writing coach.
The atmosphere is completely non-judgmental. T he inmates are encouraged to open up about how they've found the programme.
"I can express myself better," says one. "It's been an eye-opener, a learning experience," adds another.
The floodgates open: "It's helped me say goodbye to toxic relationships." "These four years working with Rhodessa have not only saved my life, but changed my outlook on life." "If it hadn't been for theatre and the stage and feeling loved and held, I'd be no more than a bad memory, or a bitch with a bad attitude."
A choreographer who's in for fraud admits to "a roller coaster of mixed emotions: in here, you feel the world shuts you out. You feel like a criminal and you're treated like scum. But (in this project) there are people who care about you other than your family."
Another woman gets emotional: "Talking about my problems breaks me," she confesses. Tyelele comforts her: "That breaking is healing - it's a step forward. It takes you out of your comfort zone and opens you to possibilities."
While not condoning the inmates' crimes, Jones speaks to them in no-holds-barred language they can relate to - such as "dick and dope equals death". Her regular workshops, aimed at empowering the prisoners and decreasing recidivism, have led to performances at the State Theatre.
Now, audiences can see SERIOUS FUN AT SUN CITY once again, on Saturday, at 11am in the recreation hall at the Diepkloof women's prison, near Southgate. Entrance is free and there is a free bus to the prison at 9.30am from the Market Theatre, or you can get there under your own steam.
"It's about giving them a voice," says Jones of this US government-supported "prison TRC". "I believe in public communion and the reinforcement of community; learning about each other. I believe they have changed in a good way. And yes, theatre can change the world."