Lori Pitts ’12: Changing Lives and Policy Through Theatre
By: Danielle Strickland
Lori Pitts ’12 is a perfect example of the ways a liberal arts education can shift perspectives and open minds to new possibilities. What began as a pre-med journey to become a pediatrician grew into a rejuvenated passion for theatre and a realization that it can change lives significantly and forever.
And that’s exactly what she’s doing now in Washington, D.C.
As the founder of Voices Unbarred, Pitts uses Theatre of the Oppressed to reimagine the prison system alongside those who are directly impacted and advocate for social and policy change.
With Theatre of the Oppressed, Pitts applies games and tools that help people analyze the world around them, explore social and political issues, and create solutions. For example, a group might play a common children’s game like Red Rover, but through the game, the participants start talking about who was called over or what it felt like to be called to the other side, and how that might relate to a real life issue, such as who is being incarcerated in America. Based on these discussions, participants of Voices Unbarred use their stories and ideas for change to create performances around real issues surrounding the criminal justice system.
A diverse audience, including local policy makers, is invited to attend performances to learn from people with lived experience and participate in collective problem solving. Some of their performances even result in attendees designing policies to be incorporated into bills proposed in front of the DC Council.
“The power of theatre is often overlooked, and that’s what drew me to it,” she said. “When you step into other people’s shoes and build empathy, it can show you a different society and what’s really possible. Often, we only look at the entertainment part of traditional theatre, but Theatre of the Oppressed gives more people the tools to shape the world around them.”
When Pitts first visited Davidson all the way from her home in Texas, she wasn’t sure if it would be the right option. Most friends from high school were staying close, going to Texas Tech, the University of Texas or Texas A&M, and Davidson was not well known in her circles. But a Collegeboard recommendation and a piece of Davidson mail piqued her interest enough to check it out.
“Davidson was the very last school I toured, and I texted my mom immediately and told her it was the one,” she said. “I visited the weekend Davidson went to the Elite 8 with Stephen Curry, and seeing the way the community came together really gave me that family feel. Even when we lost, everyone was still so pumped up and supportive. It was an easy choice.”
As she explored pre-med classes, Pitts, who earned the Medlin Family Scholarship, also took “Theatre and Social Justice” with Theatre Professor Sharon Green. This class completely changed how she thought about theatre and how it could and should be about much more than performance. She also interned with the Friends of the Arts team on campus.
Pitts had never worked in a prison before starting her organization, but it didn’t take long for her to see the powerful opportunities theatre can introduce to the incarcerated. Through Theatre of the Oppressed workshops, script writing and interactive performances, participants affected by incarceration are given a platform to share their stories, tackle complex issues and lead the criminal justice reform movement.
“Prisons are all about dehumanizing and taking away people’s stories,” she explained. “Theatre naturally combats that, and it’s a creative outlet that can help people heal from trauma while looking at one’s own story and the stories of others in a different way. You are the expert of your own life, and this reminds people of that fact. And who better to advocate for change than the people experiencing the issue?”
Going into prisons and working with incarcerated individuals is one part of Voices Unbarred. Another part involves hiring people who are formerly incarcerated to perform in the community and become paid Community Advocates. During the pandemic, Pitts also co-launched a “CorrespondARTS” program, which involved mailing multidisciplinary arts packets to people in prisons that were extremely isolated in lockdown so they could participate on paper. She also began a program for youth impacted by incarceration.
“The big dream is to completely reimagine the prison system–move away from punishment, explore the physical setting, dismantle the intersectional systems funneling a disproportionate number of Black and brown people into our facilities,” she said. ”I also want to change who gets to lead the conversation and whose experience is valued. And I want to do all of this through the power of theatre. It would be great to work with everyone in DC Jail and nearby facilities and really go deep into this community and continue to strengthen our advocacy pathway.”
In early 2022, Voiced Unbarred merged with Ally Theatre Company, which produces theatre designed to engage audiences through acknowledging and confronting systemic oppression in America. Pitts became their Artistic Director, and the two companies became one. Her work has been shared on some of the largest stages in Washington, DC, including the Kennedy Center.
Through all the success she’s found, Pitts often thinks of Davidson and where it all began. Her appreciation came full circle during the pandemic when she was invited by Green to speak to one of her classes over Zoom.
“I was thrilled to talk with students, and I’d love to do it again,” Pitts said. “It was at that moment that I was like, ok, I’m a guest speaker for my college. I’ve made it.”