Idle Crimes and Heavy Work

Julie B. Johnson

Idle Crimes & Heavy Work

Idle Crimes & Heavy Work is an interactive live performance, video installation, and workshop series focused on black women’s experiences within the history of incarceration and convict labor. Together with the cast and collaborators, we center the historical criminalization of black women’s stillness (“idleness”) that has very real implications for black women’s labor today. We reflect on the commodification of our working bodies that emerged during slavery and was perpetuated through convict leasing to build the infrastructure of the new south. Contemplating gendered and racial violence — and modes of resistance and restoration — we draw on the lives of real women, such as Mattie Crawford who was sentenced to life in prison and “heavy work” in 1896 at the age of 16 for killing her abusive step father. Mattie worked as a blacksmith, and used her skill, strength, and fortitude to resist and survive amidst the atrocities of the Georgia prison labor camps.1 1

This work is developing through Moving Our Stories, LLC, in conjunction with my participation as a co-director of The Georgia Incarceration Performance Project (GAIPP). GAIPP is a devised archives-to-performance collaboration between Spelman College, The University of Georgia, faculty and students, archivists and librarians, professional artists and designers, community partners, and incarcerated collaborators enrolled in courses through Common Good Atlanta.

I am honored to collaborate with Artistic Director Tambra Omiyale Harris and dancers of Giwayen Matathe "award-winning, dynamic, soul-stirring, all-sistah, dance, percussion, and vocal ensemble that celebrates the richness of traditional Afrika by exhibiting its exemplary art forms. The ensemble performs traditional, contemporary and original pieces that address issues pertaining to people of color, women, and the environment.” I am also partnering with artist/videographer/documentarian Kimberly Binns who has documented this work in the effort to amplify this history and contribute this work back to the archives. 

The Live Performance

The work is staged as a prison visitation structure with two rows of chairs facing each other. The performers sit in one row, and we invite the audience sit in a chair opposite of a performer. When the audience member sits, it prompts the performer to share their embodied story. to get close, make a human connection, and sit inside an embodied dialogue on the ongoing impacts of the carceral and convict labor systems on the lives of all Georgia residents.

The Video Installation

Video #1: “Stroke and Stripe”

This documentary by Kimberly Binns looks into the collaborative embodied memory process with the choreographer and cast. “Stroke and Stripe” refers to the marks of violence on women’s bodies, the meticulous documentation of every lash of the whip doled out by “whipping bosses” (often times for daring to pause and take a moment to breathe). “Stroke and Stripe” also amplifies the cruel irony that while cracks of the whip were tallied and counted in a registry, black women’s experiences have been generally discounted in the historical record of incarceration and convict labor.

Video #2: “Visitation”

“Visitation” is a dance film connecting our embodied memory to the memory of place. It is filmed in Grant Park, Atlanta, an area historically connected to the emergence of the railroads of the south and the swelling of the convict leasing system.

The Process for the 1st Live Performance

Moving Our Stories, LLC is a multifaceted creative practice that explores embodied memory and personal narratives through dance workshops, choreographic practice, creative and scholarly research, and community dialogues. We draw on a deep history of embodied storytelling traditions and creative movement practices, using improvisation, choreographic processes, writing, and group discussion to investigate the ways our histories live and move in our bodies.

This work is based on four premises:

  • Our personal histories live and move in our bodies;
  • Through dancing, observing, writing, and discussing, we can draw on sense perception (what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and how we move) to locate and access embodied memory;
  • By mapping, moving, and sharing our stories, we can more deeply understand ourselves, each other, and the ways in which we operate in the world;
  • This understanding creates empathic connections that can effect personal and social change - starting at the level of the body.

For Idle Crimes & Heavy Work, we migrated between embodied memory mapping, archival materials (such as copies of newspaper articles and photographs), texts such as Talitha LeFlouria’s Chained In Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, and conversations about Maddy Crawford. A growing collection of words emerged that shaped our improvisations:

  • Heavy
  • Re/focus
  • Resilience
  • Dominance
  • Resist
  • Reclaim
  • Wielding power
  • Detail
  • Pride
  • Trauma
  • re/creation
  • Defiance
  • Tension
  • Strength
  • Sweat
  • Strain
  • Fire
  • Forging
  • Precision
  • Malleable
  • Breath
  • Lineages of labor
  • “habits of resistance” (from Talitha LeFlouria)

Each dancer found her own relationship to Mattie, and to the history of incarcerated labor. They created their own embodied stories, phrases ranging from 45 seconds to 3 minutes long. These phrases were repeated in different ways for each new encounter with an audience member, always in response to unique energy they perceived from that person.

The Workshop Series

Moving Our Stories workshops are interactive experiences for participants from all walks of life. The workshop series for Idle Crimes & Heavy Work utilize improvisation and embodied memory mapping, writing, drawing, observation, and discussion, to discover our relationships to the history of black women’s incarcerated labor - how we can connect this history to our own stories from wherever we may situate ourselves socio-culturally. However proximal or distant we may feel to this history, by moving and sharing our stories, we strive to build bridges of empathy and deeper understanding. Participant-driven activities oscillate from individual to collective explorations. Each participant brings their unique personal history and embodied knowledge. We seek for all who attend to engage deeply - dancers of all skill levels, dance enthusiasts, and anyone ready and willing to move their bodies to best of their unique ability.

Next Steps for Idle Crimes & Heavy Work

The first iteration of "Idle Crimes & Heavy Work" premiered on June 27th, 2019, at The Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCA-GA), as part of Controlled Burn, the Hughley Artist Fellowship group exhibition by WonderRoot, curated by Iman Person.

We are partnering with local historian and director of Insight Cultural Tourism, Robert Thompson. We are conducting archival research on sites and structures around Atlanta tied to the history of incarceration and convict labor, particularly in regards to black women's labor that contributed to building this city's landscape with the aim of developing a new site-specific work and walking tour. 

Idle Crimes & Heavy Work is supported in part by the Black Spatial Relics Residency Award and was selected for the Arbes Award through WonderRoot. 


1. LeFlouria, T. (2015). Chained in silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South back to text