November 28, 2016

BETWEEN BARS | Prisoners and Playwrights

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I’ve had two thoughts about theatre. The first is that it is a high art form. It is difficult to understand, like the complex symphony or the abstract painting—a sensory experience for refined tastes. The second impression I’ve had of theatre is that it is meant to entertain. People attend theatre performances because they want to have a good time. Sometimes, that entertainment may even lead to instruction or introspection.

This Incarcerated Life” changed my view of theatre. The production weaves a dozen or so vignettes of Auburn inmates’ personal stories. The play’s actors and writers are the Auburn inmates themselves. They call themselves Phoenix Players Theatre Group (PPTG).

As I watched this production, I discovered that these inmates were not performing theatre for the sake of some high art form or entertainment and educational value. I sensed something else. They performed because they desired to be transformed by reliving certain moments and memories, animated on a stage for each other and for the world to see. It seemed to me that they were performing more for themselves than for any audience in particular. One man re-enacted a conversation he had with his son who discovered his father’s crime. Another expressed the anguish of being unable to communicate well with his deaf parents.

One act left a particular impression on me. A man recounted the story of his racist grandmother-in-law who was unaware of her granddaughter’s marriage to him, a black man. He made her a blanket that she cherished until her death. He recalled the twisted irony that brought her unwitting comfort; her solace provided him a tinge of comfort too, meshed in his hurt of such ignorance:

That blanket warmed her weakened legs for five years: legs that carried her through almost a full century of U.S. history–The Great Depression, The New Deal, Pearl Harbor, WWII, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Segregation, Civil Rights Era, Vietnam, “the War On Drugs,” Mass Incarceration, Desert Storm, 9/11, and The War on Terror…One of Grandma’s most pressing concerns before she passed away was that she be buried with her blanket so that it could continue to keep her warm in her final resting place.

The stories featured on “This Incarcerated Life” were as personal as they were performative. They moved me because the actors told stories that were their own: stories of grief, regret and hope. I had always thought theatre had to be extravagant in some way. Something about the lights, the stage or the music had to dazzle and impress. These stories, on the other hand, were just stories, spoken from the mouths of those who had lived these experiences. They did not need additional flourishes or embellishments to deliver their message. There was no curtain to ease transitions or melody to evoke emotions. Each act consisted of raw, naked stories.

I have always thought that acting meant putting on a mask, or a new persona, or a different role than that of one’s own life. I’ve heard actors talk about acting as a way to escape reality and enter a new world. But the members of PPTG, rather than escaping their past and their reality—”this incarcerated life” as the show’s title is called—instead confronted and dramatized their deepest memories. Liberation, in this sense, is not found in an “escape” from reality but rather in an acknowledge of the legacy of one’s past. Performance is a way to validate the reality of those experiences and provides a way to grief, to heal, and to look ahead.

From watching “This Incarcerated Life” and having tutored several of its members who participate in CPEP, I’ve developed a newfound interest in the transformative power of theatre. So this week, I made a decision to enroll in a Cornell prison theatre class that meets with PPTG at Auburn on a weekly basis starting next semester.