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Prison Performing Arts was informed late in September that Laura Hulsey, a recently returned citizen, Alumni actor, and deeply valued PPA friend and artist, was tragically killed in a car accident. I met and worked with Laura, directing her while she completed her incarceration at Women’s Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center (WERDCC). She was a remarkable actor and choreographer, and all of us at PPA had the privilege to work with her in five productions over four years. Laura will be profoundly missed.

Laura as Ophelia, Hip Hop Hamlet, Sept. 2018. Photo Credit: Lisa Mandel.

After her release in August of 2018, Laura became a remarkably inspired returning citizen and continued her artistic journey with Prison Performing Arts’ Alumni Theatre Company, succeeding both as an actor and in her new life as a free woman.

Laura had been speaking to hundreds of young women in high schools on behalf of PPA, sharing her story, and answering questions about her experience at WERDCC, and now, as a thriving returning citizen. On September 5th, Laura brought the house down at PPA’s Annual Bash, performing a monologue she wrote herself. 

Laura speaking to 350+ students at Visitation Academy in St. Louis.

Recently PPA was contacted by a relocated NYC actor, Yvonne Woods, who sent this after seeing Laura in the premiere of the Alumni Theatre Company’s “Kept Away” at the Grand Center Theatre Crawl:

“She (Laura) should audition for Juilliard. I went there and she has a raw, fierce presence that they would love. They are hungry for talented women (especially ones who aren't white). They also have excellent financial aid, if there is need. I went there for free.”

Laura had turned her life around and exemplified the personal power and dedication required to nurture her wellbeing and success in the community. In every way, Laura exemplified the culmination of her own efforts to successfully re-enter and realize all of her dreams — both personal and artistic.  She was working three jobs, considering enrollment in college, and continuing her artistic journey that began in prison with PPA, then as an Alumni, and most recently, in a professional capacity.  Laura had just made her professional debut in St. Louis with SATE and ERA in their production "Antigone," reprising a role she played while incarcerated—but now as a free, employed actor with flourishing St. Louis theatre companies. 

While incarcerated, Laura participated in the development of a play commissioned by PPA called Run-On Sentence by playwright, Stacie Lents, who wrote this about Laura, shared at her Celebration last week:

“There is a great deal to say about Laura Hulsey, but three things stand out: First, she was incredibly bright. Almost the moment I met her; I remember telling her that she belonged in college. She had the intellectual curiosity and the hunger for learning that drives the best academics and she wasn't afraid to be challenged. The second is her sense of humor, which she used to brighten any and every situation. She made fun of prison; she made fun of me; she made fun of herself--and sometimes she made fun of all those things in the same sentence--but always from a place of love and good intention. The third thing is that Laura was like a textbook example of "rehabilitation." She told me several times that she had come to prison as one woman and she was leaving as someone else. But a simpler way to say that is that she was a person who believed in knowing better so she could do better. I learned a lot from Laura, and I will miss her." 

From ERA & SATE’s co-production of“Antigone.”

Photo by Joey Rumpell Photograph

Laura appears in a documentary about the development of Stacie’s play by award-winning documentary filmmaker Lisa Boyd.  It’s called The Voice Within. Lisa asked me to send her love to Laura’s family and say to all:

“I was extremely moved and touched not only by Laura’s talent but her heart and soul. She spoke so clearly and pure. She transformed into a butterfly. Now she is an angel watching over us and loving and supporting every one of us. I will miss you Dear Laura:  Your light shines a thousand rays of light.” 

PPA collected writings from her sisters at the Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center (WERDCC). The day we heard of Laura’s passing I was bound for Vandalia for a rehearsal of The Tempest.  The women were all deeply affected by the news and I was glad a representative from PPA was able to personally communicate her passing and take time to process the resulting sadness.  The women all wrote about Laura and a volume was delivered to her family at her memorial.  Here are a few selections:

Super creative stars can be impatient plus demanding. Laura, during her time with us, never wavered from her creative self, but her patience expanded over time. She patiently, easily taught, instructed, and demonstrated dance moves hour after hour, eight count after eight count, for months prior to each play with no sign of irritation at the ones who struggled to both initially get the move and then remember the sequence of steps in each dance. I watched her grow wiser and kinder within the realm of creative patience.

When I lose a loved one, my airy spirit turns as brittle as shale — the thin rocky layer along a ravine that crumbles as I attempt to climb up and out of the deep swollen river of sorrow.

Patty Prewitt, 9/21/19

To me, Laura will always be…

Head thrown back, laughing in the rain

Watching in awe as she danced across the stage

Teaching me to dance and acting side-by-side in many plays.

Her hands shaking delivering her first haircut, me napping in the chair,

Three hours later - still clipping with care! :)

Camera in our faces as we bared our souls.

Swapping stories from our past and our future goals.

So many flashes of her go through my mind,

I will cherish them all for the rest of my life!

I love Laura and am so grateful I was Blessed with her.

Amy Sherrill 9/21/19

Laura was one of the most authentically talented people I have worked with in 40 years.  She was also one of the sweetest, funniest, kindest young women in the world.  We were friends and colleagues and all of our hearts are broken, as we wonder at the illogic of life’s mysterious matters of existence.

Finally, in the words of Shakespeare:

Good night, sweet princess, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Laura as Ophelia,Hip Hop Hamlet, Sept. 2018. Photo Credit: Lisa Mandel.

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