But Girls on the Wall, her documentary featuring incarcerated young women from Illinois who construct a musical about their vexed lives, is undeniably a pinch of both. Ross directs her gaze on three girls in particular: Whitney, a lovable, full-of-potential butch who won't disclose how she arrived at Warrenville Prison; Rosa, who's described by her drama teacher as the "muse" of the jail, prolifically spouting off sage phrases like, "When I look at myself in the mirror, I don't see a person, I see an institution"; and Christina, a tornado of blond, bubbly energy whose tragic flaw is caring too much about her mother, a long-gone addict. They each write a vignette about their past, which other girls at Warrenville then act out in front of family and friends — a daring thing, given that their stories of neglect, drug addiction and sexual abuse are mostly about those very people in the audience.
"The girls finally get to tell their side of the story, and it's in a way that's not accusatory and well-articulated, so those ideas are actually going to be absorbed by the family members a lot more easily," says Ross. "You never saw any parents saying afterward, 'Why'd you put that stuff about me in there?'"
Any Wiki-student of criminal justice is familiar with the motifs of Girls on the Wall — the reality of human transformation, cycles of poverty and abuse, the draconian flaws of the modern prison system — but it takes Whitney, Rosa and Christina to make them anything but textbook abstraction. Paradoxically, these young women are what make Girls on the Wall more of an issue film than a character one: When you reconcile one girl's grisly crime with her deep rehabilitation, it's impossible to not get riled about the fact that Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than any other state in the U.S. And when you discover that another young woman's rage is a response to being molested as a child, how can you not be inspired to interrupt that cycle, both for her and the generation after?
Beverly Redman, an assistant professor of theater at Ursinus College, certainly is. Last year, she brought to Graterford — a high-security prison outside of Wilkes-Barre — a project much like that in Girls on the Wall. She instructed a couple dozen men, many of whom are capital murderers, to write monologues about their lives; professionals will act them out in Prison 101 this weekend at the Painted Bride, which will take place after a screening of Ross' documentary.
"The biggest thing the men wanted to get across is that transformation on the inside should equal liberation on the outside," says Redman. "We're complex human beings, and it's easy enough for people in Graterford to recognize who's dangerous and who's changed, so why is it so hard for the justice system to recognize that?"
That's a controversial idea — and one that you'll only ever take seriously after hearing from the complex human beings themselves.
Prison 101, Sat., Nov. 13, 2-4:30 p.m., $15, Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., 267-402-2055, firstpersonarts.org.