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  • Prison Performing Arts


Fifteen years ago, Rachel Tibbetts, while working with a group called Young Audiences of St. Louis, teamed up with Nathan Graves at the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) to start working on a project together. What began as a grassroots effort to connect justice-involved youth to the arts has grown into a week-long residency that’s well-loved inside and outside the detention center’s walls. Tibbetts is now PPA’s Director of Youth Programs, and Graves is currently serving as Court Administrator for the Family Court - Juvenile Division.

The Hip-Hop Poetry Project provides intensive performance arts programming during school breaks at the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center. The goal is to have each young person in the facility spend every day of the project in constructive and creative activities. Each year, the youth’s writing is shared through a culminating performance, an anthology, and a music sharing platform.

Remembering how the culminating performance first started, Tibbetts explains, “The first year it was just a writing project, performed last-minute in the cafeteria. Now, we have all these different components. There’s dance, there’s design of all kinds—like graphic, costume, and set design—recording work… it’s a much bigger production. And we’ve graduated to the gym.”

Each year, Tibbetts and Graves have tested the project’s limits. “One year, the day before the public showcase, we decided to add a program, so the youth could take home pieces and the audience could read it during the show. Considering the acoustics of the gym, it was easier for the audience to follow along with their work,” Tibbetts recalls.

During the week-long residency, she noticed that not all the youth gravitated towards the writing component. “It can be hard to write about your life. We thought it would be good to include other things, like dance and design, so that everyone who is there during the week can be involved in something.” The youth develop all the content, learn the dances, and design everything in one week.

The audience in attendance grew over time as the performance gained local popularity. “The first audience was maybe 30 people in the cafeteria,” says Tibbetts. “And now it’s sold out every year, and the audience is usually around 150.”

To really invest in the program, Tibbetts and Graves organized volunteers, teaching artists and staff. In the last 15 years, PPA and the Family Court - Juvenile Division has worked with over 30 different artists. Furthermore, PPA and Detention Center staff, teaching artists, and volunteers actively present themselves as a team during the week, so the youth can model that kind of artistic interaction.

“Since we have a proven track record of success in that the youth are able to work together and collaborate, the JDC has given us a lot of leeway with how the groups interact during the week as well as the Saturday performance,” says Tibbetts. “You get to see a lot of stuff this week that you don’t get to see during the year with other youth programming.”

PPA is celebrating more than a 15-year milestone; this year marks the 20th year of partnering with the JDC in St. Louis City. PPA started doing programs with the JDC in 1999 and is proud to be one of their longest-standing partners.

“This is one of the ways we are differentiated compared to other organizations,” says Chris Limber, PPA’s Artistic Director. “PPA, for a long time, has been concerned with working with justice-involved youth as well as adult inmates.”

For more insight into the history of Hip Hop Poetry Project, you can read Nathan Grave’s reflection on the 10th Anniversary showcase here.

To register for the 15th Anniversary Hip Hop Poetry Project showcase, visit and submit your RSVP by May 31st, 2019.


Hip Hop Poetry Project: Click here to RSVP!

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center 3847 Enright Avenue St. Louis, MO 63108

7:00pm Performance (6:30pm check-in)

RSVP DEADLINE: Friday, May 31, 2019 Guests must be at least 21-years-old

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