Teaching Artist Spotlight: Elia Enid Cadilla

We recently talked with Elia Cadilla, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Elia has done research for the FILIUS Institute, part of the School of Medicine of the University of Puerto Rico (among other projects, a study about the effect of theater in the rehabilitation process of female convicts.) Cadilla teaches Acting for Film and TV at the University of Sacred Heart, and directs the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Theater Program since late 2001. Elia speaks on the current effects of pandemic on carceral settings, the role of the arts and radical empathy during this time period, and the ways in which she believes the intersection of creation and justice might help to improve our collective societies.

  JACAs we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

EC: This is a complex question, with a complex answer. The main negative effect is frustration, both for the ones who are still inmates, as for the ones already free. Ironically enough, the situation – in terms of sheer survival – can be more dire for the ones out of prison than for the ones inside. The ones still incarcerated have food, lodging, medical attention. We’ve had to help out several of the women outside through our non profit, which is NGO, because many didn’t have the necessary tools to handle this situation. Many times they have to accept the most menial jobs, which don’t have benefits such as health insurance, for even though unemployment benefits have been extended for people who don’t usually receive them, some don’t have the tools to navigate the system, or lack a proper ID, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, those inside the prison are experiencing a type of incarceration they had left behind when they joined the theater group, mixed with a new restriction, which is the lack of family visits to prevent contagion. They communicate with their loved ones by phones provided by the Department but lack, of course, physical contact. However, in my communications with members of the group, I find there is a general understanding that this affects the whole population, not just them, and that these restrictions have managed to keep them healthy. They have access to information from outside, and are aware that some prisons in other states and countries have horrific stories going on. That doesn’t detract from their desire to go out and do their work, and see their families, but it makes it less hard to bear. The males of the Correctional Theater reside in a correctional institute that houses programs with certain privileges, and they’re concentrated right now in exercising to stay in acting form, and writing new ideas to work on as soon as we can resume our activities. The females reside in an area of the women’s prison, and are not as well organized as the men. This responds to patterns established in their own communities, and is one of the situations we deal with in the Program, but it’s a work in progress. The net result is that it’s easier for the men to manage their frustration at their inability to perform their job as actors and educators, but in general they are all coping, because they have something to look forward to.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

EC: All prisons should have a robust health system, access to prompt medical care, and a crisis management capacity that has been sadly lacking in many prisons, both stateside and in many countries, from what I infer from the different news leaking out of some facilities, and from what transpired in our zoom meeting this past week. As far as what action is needed, I can refer to our own experience here. The minute the magnitude of the covid threat to health was ascertained, on March 13, the Secretary of the PR Department of Correction and Rehabilitation ordered a lockdown eliminating access to all civilians not indispensable for vital operations, with an organized plan that included checking temperatures of any indispensable personnel before allowing access to the institutions, with observation and testing in place, established correctional officers’ shifts rotation, preventive isolation of any possible source of contagion, such as inmates that had to go to hospital, and upon return were quarantined until proven clean. It hasn’t been easy. A lot of people have had to work remote to ensure safe conditions for the inmates, but it has worked. All our inmates are covid-free. The 2 that pop up in statistics are two juveniles who came in already contaminated, were isolated at once and treated. If you have that kind of preventive crisis protocols, all concerns will not go away, of course; families will still want to see their loved ones and send them things, etc., but the bottom line here is we have to protect the lives of incarcerated people and stop the virus spread. A good management plan, such as instituted here in Puerto Rico, will accomplish that. Of course, nothing in the world is foolproof and we might have some cases in the future, but the situation has been managed successfully, so far.

JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

EC: It’s very difficult to balance safety with social connectivity in such a dangerous scenario as covid-19 presents for an incarcerated population; heck, it’s very difficult for the rest, non-captive population, with a great deal of stress and psychological damage taking its toll on a lot of people. The theater’s usual chores have literally, been one alleviating factor that has contributed to helping them cope. They have kept on writing, exercising, inventing alternatives to keep on with their acting through virtual strategies, etc. They recently sent me a proposal to perform by some platform through the sergeant, but it was one I had already presented to the administration. Regardless, I’m sending it also, in support of the already proposed tactic, but I’m conscious that getting it implemented will take some time. We’ve kept in touch through several avenues. One, their families. Even though not all inmates have a supporting, caring family, quite a few more than usual do when it comes to the theater group. This is because we foster family relations in different ways: we try to have relatives assist activities at open venues: theaters, for example, where anyone can attend. Usually the Secretary or the Sub Secretary (both very favorable, through the years, to the Theater Program) attends such an activity, and up to the very last one, they have authorized at the end of the performance relatives getting close to the inmates and congratulating them, hugs and expressions of affection included. The pride in families when they see their previously errant relative standing on a theater stage, applauded for their artistic work and their honesty (for the plays often depict the route that led them behind bars, and their reflection and repentance as well), have many times created a new bond of communication and respect between the inmate and his/her family. I try to keep in touch with those families that respond positively, and also with what are called “counseling friends” – people from all walks of life that decide to sponsor an inmate and give them some of emotional support and even sometimes some financial assistance for their more immediate needs, such as depositing money for their phone calls (which are very expensive, as we all know), and other urgent things. Two, our own team – the correctional officers and the penal case worker who see them during their shifts, let me know how they are coping, and advise them while at the same time letting them know what I’m doing to keep the Program going during this time. Three, I keep in touch with the commander of the institution, who is very favorable to the Theater Program (because they have an excellent behavior in and out of the institution, and help out in anything needed, plus keep their living quarters immaculate – part of their theatrical discipline) and with whom I maintain an open communication.

JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

 EC: Knowledge. Powerful networking. Funding. Not necessarily in that order. Funding is probably of the first order. Regardless of our commitment, our reptilian brain commands us to survive – food, lodging, health needs are fundamental. Most artists have never been the most savvy when it comes to making money a priority (first-hand knowledge speaks). But when the urge to survive slaps you in the face, it’s a must needs that has to be addressed immediately. And there the powerful networking and the knowledge comes in. We have to be able to identify possible sources of funding. People with the knowledge of where to find accessible grants, interested philanthropic or high profile personalities that can attract them, people with knowledge to create platforms that attract a lot of traffic and hence, support through the acquisition of high visibility… I can go on, but they are the same rules I have applied as a producer to my own productions in the past, and these are all very connected. You need one to get the other, and so we reach the egg and hen dilemma. If we all pool our resources together, the goals will move forward faster.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

EC: No contest there: to see how their lives change completely. Even before they are able to go home free, they change. I’ve seen people who came from being drug dealers, prostitutes, addicts, gunners for the punto (the drug dealing business), thieves, car hijackers, you name it, become actors, artisans, writers, preachers even, for even though I do not participate myself in organized religion I do applaud the ones who look for it in order to deal with their past lives, as sometimes they need to feel God has forgiven them, and so they can forgive themselves and start anew. I keep track of many of my ex students. They send me information about their new lives, jobs, mates, homes, etc., and it’s a source of joy that we all share with each member of the support group and with other inmates that look up to the ones that have made it, and see in them that they can make it, too.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?

EC: One of the jokes (we use humor a lot in the Program, in order to cope) we have shared within the Program has been: well, now a lot of people know how it feels to be trapped in a cell, to not be able to walk down the street when you feel like it. We’ve discussed how this new awareness can maybe change the way some people view incarcerated people, and perhaps influence lawmaking in some way or other. If you ask my personal opinion, I feel we have a long way ahead. The US has less than 5% of the world population and yet it has  22% of the world’s imprisoned population, far ahead of several totalitarian regimens. There is too much feeling of “otherness” towards imprisoned persons, and I firmly believe that we can change that through the arts, for I have seen it happen here in our system. When I began, almost 19 years ago (and I had already had a close look at the system though volunteer work with imprisoned youth), the officers almost uniformly disliked the Theater Program. What helped me in the beginning was that I was a well-known and respected artist, and so the manifestations tended to be polite in general, but there were also quite a few not-so-polite ones. Now (even though there’s still rejection from some quarters), we have no problem getting officers who want to be part of the Program and it’s actually a coveted position. Very soon some people who were skeptical about theater in prison saw the change in attitudes and behavior and recognized it as a positive movement towards rehabilitation and many became advocates of what the arts could do to change lives.

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

EC: It’s funny how you manage to ask a question that sounds simple but its answer is anything but. It’s been a long road. I believe free will and fate coexist happily, thank you very much. Early in my career, my looks (then), would get me TV bimbo and femme fatale roles time and again, but I felt a very strong pull towards social theater and the minute a very respected theater director, Victoria Espinosa, cast me in a one-woman show as an aging, run-down prostitute (I was still very young, and so it was a fantastic characterization for me, which are my favorite roles), and got rave reviews for it, someone asked me to do it in a low-income residential project. From then on, somehow, I would get offered opportunities to work with low-income, high risk populations, both in PR and when I moved to NY. There I lived 8 years, and I found myself splitting time between acting in theater, TV and doing some film work, but giving a lot of my time to social theater. I taught at the Human Solidarity Institute (mostly to immigrants), ASPIRA – to disadvantaged youth, and the New Federal Theater, at the Henry St. Settlement Playhouse, almost always with disadvantaged populations. When we returned to PR for family reasons, after several years in high-profile work in TV stations and theaters, I eventually gravitated once again towards teaching high-risk behavior populations, and when the then Secretary of Correction and Rehabilitation looked for someone to teach at the women’s prison, it was almost by default that my name came up. The first year there were 4 teachers – 3 males actors working with the male population and I with the females. One year later I was the only one left, and wound up directing the whole project.

Elia co-authored an article for an arbitrated publication (IRB approved), about a small-scale (3 subjects sample) research study on how and why theater can be a rehabilitation tool. Below is that article.

CORRECTIONAL THEATER PROGRAM 2020

People can learn more about Elia’s work at:
Facebook: Elia Enid Cadilla
Twitter: @EliaEnidCadilla

 

Actress, producer, director and writer, Elia Enid Cadilla has represented Puerto Rico in film and theater festivals. Cadilla was Chairperson of the first Cultures of the Third World Symposium at the United Nations, and has received honors and awards for her work in several fields of endeavors. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the PR Association of Film and Audiovisual Producers for over a decade and hosted the First Puerto Rican Coproduction Forum for Ibero American Films. 

Cadilla produced and directed the TV film “Cal y Arena”, based on a story she co-wrote. She’s producing and codirecting the documentary “Cicatrices” (“Scars”), about formerly incarcerated females who have used theater as a rehabilitation tool. She also wrote the series “De carne y hueso” (Flesh and blood), inspired in the real-life stories of incarcerated men and women. 

She produced, co-wrote and directed the series “Después del Adiós” (Beyond Goodbyes), lauded by the media as the best production of this genre in Puerto Rico. She’s written, produced and directed short film series for the Office of Women Affairs, and has produced and directed films for TV, musical videos, television specials and public service advertising campaigns. She coproduced and wrote the script for “Múltiples Ellas”, breaking the Performing Arts Center’s attendance record, a statistic that remained unequaled for several years. Cadilla produced, among other projects, seven environmental education festivals (with concerts, multimedia exhibitions, recycling, reforestation and beach cleanup drives and educational conferences), and was awarded and recognized both by government agencies and private environmental organizations. 

Cadilla was a leading figure in soap operas. Her roles include costarring in TV films and the Spanish-Puerto Rican film “Agua con sal”. A recent performance was in “The Vessel”, starring Martin Sheen. She produced and starred in Cyrano de Bergerac, receiving the best actress award of the Drama Critics Circle, which also chose the play as the year’s best.

The Prison Story Project

On May 23, 2020, in collaboration with The Prison Story Project, the Justice Arts Coalition will be presenting a premiere screening of “On the Row,” a documentary created by The Prison Story Project that explores the humanity and stories of men currently on death row. As part of our larger Create + Connect: Online Workshop Series, JAC feels privileged to be a part of this vital dialogue, and looks forward to your attendance at this screening. JAC recently spoke to Kathy McGregor, Founder and Project Director at The Prison Story Project. Her profound words are below.

To register for the “On the Row” screening, which will be presented on May 23 @3:00 pm EST, visit this link. 


Since 2012, The Prison Story Project has entered correctional centers in Arkansas to give
women and men the tools to tell their stories. We believe that no voice should be silenced, and we hope through staged readings of the women’s and men’s writing that we will help bridge the gap between the incarcerated and the communities to which they hope to return.

In May of 2016, The Prison Story Project gained unprecedented access to the men on death row. We knew that these men had, through violent acts, silenced the voices of innocent lives forever. We entered partly on impulse, partly on faith, and partly because we could. The men on the row initially met us with curiosity and a good deal of resistance. They wanted to know what was in it for us. They feared we would manipulate or exploit them. They didn’t trust us. Over six months, through mailings and visits, we asked them to tell their stories. Many of our proven strategies failed. The men on the row told us they were different from other prisoners and that we couldn’t possibly understand them. However, they kept trying and we kept trying. The magic of looking a person in the eye and treating him like a human being started to take hold, and without a doubt the men on the row were powerful writers with stories that surprised us with their insights and emotional depth. They didn’t dwell on their pasts or blame others for their crimes. Some of them had found an immense peace that eludes many of us in the free world, and they wanted to share it purely out of gratitude for having found it. By facing their crimes, enduring their sentences, and accepting their impending deaths, they each found ways to survive and retain their humanity. Their writing exploded, and by our final class we saw each other eye to eye. They trusted us, they said. We
had just gotten our first glimpse of them, we said back.

We didn’t know how they would react to our presentation of their writing. They had put up resistance all along and doubted that we could properly represent their stories. On October 8, 2016, the day of the inside performance, we showed up with an entourage of two poets, a storyteller, five actors, and a musician. We brought snacks. We chatted. We threw a little party in one of the darkest corners in America. When the performance started, we fell to silence and listened deeply. As one of the men on the row wrote us afterwards in a thank you letter, we were all transformed by the writing we heard that day: inmates, teachers, and actors. The writing, he said, culminated in something that’s bigger than all of us.

The Governor of Arkansas signed orders on February 27, 2017 for an unprecedented 8
executions over 10 days to begin just after Easter. Four of the men scheduled participated in this project. Stacey Johnson and Don Davis received stays. Jack Jones was executed on April 24, 2017, and Kenneth Williams was executed on April 27, 2017. Many of us held silent vigil at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, AR on each of the scheduled execution dates as the defense lawyers and Attorney General filed briefs with the Arkansas Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court literally up to minutes before the death warrants expired at midnight. One participant described the vigils as feeling like silent screams.

The film screening of “On The Row” reminds us all of the humanity of the men on the row and the redemption they have found during twenty plus years of being locked away in solitary confinement. They are profoundly grateful to be heard and share their stories. And we are lucky to be able to hear them.


For more information on the Prison Story Project:

Matt Henriksen, Prison Story Project Creative Writing Director for “On The Row”
Kathy McGregor, Prison Story Project Founder and Project Director
Fayetteville, AR
www.prisonstoryproject.com

The Hamilton Project

by Guy La”Tron” Banks, a.k.a Tronee Threat

It’s two a.m. I can’t sleep. I find myself inside the restroom stall of the dorm I share with 200 other men, but no one happens to be in here with me and it is quiet enough to hear my thoughts and feel my emotions. I throw on my headphones and tune into rapper Swoope’s song “You Got Me”. The song is an exact expression of my feelings at the moment. I feel like God got me – like he is really looking out for me. The past three days have been so beautiful. I’ve seen loved ones, as well as strangers all, come together throughout this weekend with the same purpose. It was glorious. I have caged my emotions the whole time, but right now tears, Mr. Kool-Aid smiles, and laughter is starting to run wild. I am alive. I can see greatness before me. I feel closer to my dreams than ever before. The moment that I’ve just lived out was so much bigger than me and I’m ready to take it to another level. My eyes are on the stars but my head is against the ceiling. I feel like a jumbo jet in a dark and dirty warehouse. My joy and excitement are anchored by reality. My motivation is fueled and frustrated all at once.

These are the thoughts and emotions surrounding me after the final show of four performances in a span of two days of The Hamilton Project. The KUJI Men’s Chorus lead by Dr. Catherine Roma teamed up with, Dr. Jessie Glover, Lori Hiltenbeitel, and a band of supporters, at Marion Correctional Institution in Marion Ohio, and took Lin’s masterpiece from the heavenly heights of Broadway all the way down to the lowly floors of the jailhouse. I was first introduced to the idea of performing Hamilton in November of 2018. KUJI had just finished what was then our best performance to date, the reenactment of Les Miserables with students from Salisbury college. Dr. Roma was already thinking about what was to come next for us and she wanted to keep elevating. She asked me what I thought about doing Hamilton. I had heard of the musical, but I never paid much attention to it. I had seen some hip-hop musicals and never really thought they were any good. I remember watching MTV’s “hip- hopera” Karma and thinking, “this really sucks”. I love hip hop and I want to see it rise to levels unimaginable, but not at the expense of it being “corny”. KUJI did good with Le Mis, and it made us better. It taught us discipline, accountability, priority, and brought out hidden talents within the group. Best of all, we built unity throughout the process. So maybe another musical will help us advance as a group. What if musicals could become KUJI’s “thing”? Dr. Roma could be opening up the lane of hip hop, knowing I will put my all into this project because rapping is what I do and hip hop is what I am. I was also skeptical because in hip-hop good rappers don’t rap other artists’ music. But, I trusted Dr. Roma and believed in my team so I said: “let’s do it”. By February of 2019, we were gearing up to do Hamilton.

I still had not heard any of the music. Dr. Roma gave me the soundtrack and from the press of play, I was caught in Lin’s web of dope beats, flow patterns, wordplay, and storytelling ability. I thought so far so great. The music wasn’t corny. It solidified my decision to pursue the project. I wasn’t sure what role I would play in the musical. KUJI is made up of many good artists who could fill several roles. I was instantly spellbound by a song called “Wait for it”. It was to be performed by the character Aaron Burr. He also had a daughter and I have two. Again another of his songs (“Dear Theodosia”) directed toward his daughter expressed my sentiments well. However, the group thought I should play Alexander Hamilton (the lead role) which is the most demanding role of all. I accepted, so it was time to fully commit.

The Hamilton Project, Marion Correctional Institution
Makaveli as Hercules Mulligan, Tron as Hamilton, Sam as John Laurens. Photo: Kyle Long

After listening to the music I started memorizing the songs. Lin used a lot of rhyme schemes that I was already familiar with, so the flow came first. Flow is the cadence and style of the song lyrics. Next, I learned the lyrics by reciting day and night until they were committed to memory. Then I explored the meaning of it all. I could mimic the musical at that point but I still had to become my character. I wanted to see Miranda’s vision and feel Hamilton’s struggle. I wondered what was Lin trying to say. How true was the story of Alexander Hamilton’s’ life? The only thing I knew about him was that he was on the ten-dollar bill. I learned all the basics of Hamilton’s story by listening closely to the fragmented story of the soundtrack. It taught me about Alexander’s family, his upbringing, intelligence, and work ethic. Dr. Roma brought in material for us to read about it. We met with Dr. Glover once a week for a month and dissected each song. I began to see him as a person, leader, family man, politician, and genius. I tried to imagine Alexander as a performer. I knew this would be the most difficult part of the job – portraying a white politician as a young fly MC. Everything I learned about theater and acting as a member of Theatre of Conviction for the past four years, (which is also run by Dr. Glover) paid off. As I understood his dream and struggle, overtime got in tune with the spirit of Hamilton, and it became real on stage.

I related to Alexander’s ambitions to create something great, bigger than himself. In “The Room Where it Happens”, the lyrics “God help and forgive me, I want to build something that’s going to outlive me” are the echoes of my soul. He knew that what he was about to attempt was big, and big dreams are dangerous. He longed for change – for a revolution. It would call for great sacrifices from many. He knew the pain of those sacrifices and so he asked for forgiveness. He coveted divine help, knowing the magnitude of his task and the righteousness of the cause. I dream of using Hip- hop to transform the ghetto and empower its people. I don’t want to simply take the fruits of a successful hip-hop career and give back to the ghetto; I want to plant the hip-hop tree in the ghetto. I want to restore control of the art form and its benefits to people who produce it. We forge the art form in the fire of our oppression; it’s only just that we benefit from it. Alexander also knew that he needed the education to be able to execute his goals. “Imma get a scholarship to King’s College”, he said. He wanted to go to a prestigious college and establish valuable relationships – social capital. I need education too. I need to thoroughly understand the music business. I need to meet powerful and passionate people. That is why I’m attending Ohio University while I’m in prison. I hope to use it as a springboard to Berklee’s School of Music to gain a wealth of knowledge and relationships and obtain a degree in Music Business and Management when I’m released. I admire his obsessive nature and big-picture perspective. I learn from his mistakes and shortcomings. His infidelity and lack of self-control destroyed his family, stained his reputation and single-handedly prevented his presidential hopes, which would have allowed him to make a greater impact. He was never home and didn’t spend enough time with his family. I know it’s critical to value my relationships and remain faithful. These connections tapped into my internal energy reserves and allowed me to bring life to every rehearsal.

The rehearsal was challenging. We were only able to rehearse for two hours a week as a group. We lost a couple of months because of inconsistencies in prison and personal schedules. We battled and struggled with one another. We gained new members and lost some. We met with Dr. Glover and Lori every other week to stage the scenes. Driving two hours to the prison Dr. Roma, our Choir Director, was there as much as she could be, but some days we were on our own. Those times called many of us to leadership. This was new to all of us. No one had ever done a hip-hop musical; it showed and it wasn’t looking good. We needed an extra push. Time was running out and we were getting discouraged. Then, the women arrived.

Dr. Roma brought in seven women to fill the female roles in the play. It was the day before the first show and we had not blocked the entire musical. We had chosen 23 out of 46 songs and did not have a good sense of how all of them were supposed to be sung and acted out. The stage lights were not ready, and we still needed our costumes. We had not tightened up our harmonies as an ensemble yet, and now we were adding seven more strangers to an already volatile concoction. Things could have gotten ugly. But, the women were like a warm cup of coffee on a brisk morning, warm relaxing, and yet energizing. They were accomplished professionals, and passionate about music. Lori, Bennyce, Lisa, Audrey, Danielle, Jillian, and Ashley were ready to go when they walked through the door. Working with them was easy and familiar. I walked into the chapel where we were putting on the show and they were all on the stage singing “Helpless”. I joined in with Danielle, who was playing Eliza and we sang the song like we had been singing together forever. I knew that was a good sign that we were going to be alright. We got into the costumes and into character. We tried to run through the music from the beginning but we ran out of time. Our next time meeting would be the following day, showtime, and no time to do a full run-through, so we gathered in unity and sung a hymn together. “I will be your standing stone, I will stand by you”. This was like an agreement within the group. We would support each other.

The audience arrived. Our first performance was for the general population in the prison, accompanied by the Warden, Deputy Warden, Majors, and of course staff security a.k.a Correctional Officers. We took our places. Mine was behind the curtain, where I would spend time before each show praying and calming my nerves. I listened as Dr. Glover gave an introduction, and then the music started. “How does a bastard, orphan son of a whore…” delivered by Scienze who played Aaron Burr. The execution of his lines set the tone were good, as I prayed that he would do well, and he did. Performer by performer, everyone hit their lines flawlessly in the opening. Then it was my turn to take the stage. I stepped out from behind the curtain into the light and spoke the words with a melodic cadence “Alexander Hamilton”.

I was surprised at how well the population received it. It is hard to impress people that you virtually share every waking moment with. Most of them, like us, had little knowledge of the story and were educated and entertained at the same time. They were glued to their seats, in awe of what they were hearing and seeing. Many of them are still talking about it now.

It was the Deputy Warden’s last day working at the institution, she was moved to tears by the show. The joy was real and you could tell it was going to get better as the performances continued.

The Hamilton Project, Marion Correctional Institution
John, Aziz, Makaveli, Sam, James. Photo: Kyle Long

Our second show was for an outside audience that included family, friends, former inmates, and children. The former first lady of Ohio Karen Kasich was there. She wrote “I adored the show. It brought tears to my eyes and made me laugh and smile as well. I think that’s a sign of some good acting!! These folks obviously made some devastating choices in their lives, and are they paying the price. But that does not mean they are ‘throwaways’ “. Others also wrote heartfelt comments and donated to our mission. My mother and mother in law shared the night with me. My aunt whom I had not seen in ten years showed up unexpectedly with my cousin who is suffering from mental illness. They were all blown away by the show and we are still in contact because of it. The entire environment was like nothing I had ever experienced before, inside or outside of prison. I’m still not fully capable of explaining how it felt or how we pulled the shows off with such little preparation. There were times I was experiencing altered states of consciousness, when I had a heightened sense of awareness about what was taking place in the 1800s, being relived in a moment of music and theater. I knew something was happening that I was and am thankful to be a part of. This would not have been possible without the hard work, creativity, and support of everyone that was a part of the experience. I truly believe that everyone who was supposed to be there was there. Murphy’s law was in effect, it was a struggle, but nothing was able to stop The Hamilton Project from happening.

Since the show, we have heard a lot of great feedback and request to do it again. One wildly entertaining and motivating reflection came from a 15-year-old name Cleo “EVERYONE DID AMAZING AND U MANAGED TO MAKE AN EDGY TEEN WHO IS BENT ON BEING AN EMOTIONLESS EMO SMILE AND BE VERY HAPPY”. Her comment speaks to the many physical, and emotional transformations that were taking place during and after the show. I had not been able to freely speak to my daughter for the entire nine years of my incarceration, but because my mother in law attended the show, things changed. She was so impacted that she went home and told my daughter’s mother – her own daughter – what she witnessed. She told her how she felt I had matured and talked about all the positive things in store for the future. My daughter’s mother opened up and is now supportive of my daughter and my relationship. My mother-in-law was reconciled to my mother at the show after years of feuding. Both of them met and were impressed with Dr. Roma. It was a time of true unification. Real relationships were formed and bonds were strengthened.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. My dreams are coming together. I’m not doing anything special. I’m using my natural God-given gifts and combining them with hard work and purpose. I’ve longed for times like this. I’ve always wanted to sing with a stylish, edgy, talented choir. I’ve always liked the sound of the music choirs produce, collective voices singing in harmony, and now I have the opportunity and it feels great. However, when I think about what’s to come, and what has to be accomplished, some anxiety kicks in. When is my time coming? Will I ever sit in a classroom at Berklee? Is it a silly fantasy to picture me in a studio making beautiful music and working to get it out to the world? Will I have a chance to be a real father to my daughters before it’s too late? I want to build an entire community and an artist-run label. I want to buy my mother her first home. I want to hug Dr. Roma and Dr. Glover without feeling like the police are going to apprehend me. I’m concerned about my age and time were against it all. I feel like a hot air balloon inside of a shack inflating, covering the floor, bursting out the windows, and ceiling trying to make it out but still being held back from its destination in the sky. My time is coming soon, I could be released as early as next year. But, as I learn more and reach new levels of awareness that time seems further and further away. Then I’m reminded of the words of Greek Philosopher Heraclitus, he said, ” All things come into being through opposition”. So maybe this struggle I’m experiencing – this struggle – frustrated motivation will birth something beautiful.

In the words of Dr. Jessie Glover, “there is a non-zero percent chance we will be doing Hamilton again in May of 2020”. Dr. Catherine Roma seconds that, “we are definitely doing it again”. We will get on the same page eventually, and I’m ready for whatever.

The Hamilton Project, Marion Correctional Institution
Tron as Hamilton, with ensemble. Photo: Kyle Long

About the guest contributor:

Tron is a rapper with ambitions to launch an artist-run record label that can uplift his community in Columbus, Ohio.

About the production:

The Hamilton Project was a collaboration between KUJI Men’s Chorus and Healing Broken Circles, a nonprofit organization that runs a community center inside Marion Correctional Institution. It had support from the MCI Administration and Chaplain, Otterbein University, Wilmington College, Puffin Foundation West, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Braddock Fund. If you are interested in The Hamilton Project 2020 remount, please follow ohioprisonartsconnection.org.

 

Making Meaning: a caged bird sings

by Page Dukes

I was released from prison last May, after serving ten years for a crime I committed as a heroin-addicted teenager. I have spoken publicly many times since, about the decisions and circumstances that led me to the criminal justice system. However, at the Art for Justice Forum held at Emory University Law School, I was asked to talk about the role music has played in my life, how it both kept me free on the inside and has helped me to have confidence and livelihood in my newfound freedom.

I was around music my entire life. The daughter of musicians, I toured the country and sang on stage with my mother from as early as 3 years old. I played the cello in elementary school, switching to the guitar when I discovered punk rock. My best friend and I formed a band when we were 13 and played on stages (with big black X’s on our hands) all over Atlanta. It was around that time that I began to “experiment” with drugs— my ambition to use matched and eventually surpassed my ambition to play music. By 18 I was shooting a deadly mix of heroin and cocaine daily, and by my 21st birthday I’d committed armed robbery.

In the jail, I got clean for the first time in many years. I realized all I had given up, all I had to lose and to live for. At the Art for Justice forum, I remembered the time a volunteer let me play her guitar after a jailhouse church service—how grateful I had been to her, how I probably scared her with my weeping, and how that moment was the first time I had felt anything in a long, long time. That was perhaps the first in a series of releases—in which I opened up a little at a time, and began to grow, in the darkest, dankest of places: the basement of the Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice Street.

There were long years when I didn’t get to play at all. I sang a lot when it was all I had. I remember finding spaces where the acoustics carried and amplified my voice— in the dungeon below the courthouse, where we sat shackled, anxiously awaiting an uncertain fate, or to be sent back without any answers at all; or in the visitation room, where we waited to be “shaken down,” having watched our families leave crying, trying to reassure them that we were okay.

It was in that room that I last saw Kelly Gissendanner, who was killed after 18 years on death row, having turned her life around and become a pillar of hope and encouragement in the prison community. She’d been visiting with her children in the room where they kept her quarantined from the rest of us. After her death warrant was issued, they had stopped letting her attend church and classes with us. I knew it may be the last time I would see her, so I sang for her. I cried, and she cried, and she thanked me. In Kelly’s last hours, she sang “Amazing Grace.”

Music is something that could not be taken from us. In a place designed to dehumanize you, where you’re told you are worthless—a uniform, a number, a discarded sub-citizen—you must make your own meaning. The system is not designed to rehabilitate, but to “correct–” to punish. I knew where my meaning was—music was my first religion—and I also believed that I would survive and thrive no matter how large the obstacles I had placed in my way.

How many others bought the view that their lives were worthless? That they were defined by their crimes, that they will never be anything more than a number, a statistic, an “offender.” The system will strip you of everything, even your humanity, if you let it. And once that happens what do you have left to lose?

The first panelist, Rachel May, a co-founder of Synchronicity Theatre, hosts theater workshops, where they give young girls in juvie the platform to tell their own stories. I remembered young girls who were in solitary confinement until their eighteenth birthdays. I remembered the ones who felt they had nothing to lose, facing long sentences, longer even than the one I had faced in my youth. And I hope that they find the freedom I did in music and in art and in words, that they will inspire others inside, and one day speak to an audience who wants to know how they made it through.

Another panelist had been making art since a childhood teacher had encouraged him to do so. In prison, he honed his portraiture skills, capturing the character of each person who lived in his unit, in graphite on paper. Like music, it was more than just a talent. It helped him to know who he was, and how he could serve a purpose in a void of meaning. It also helped him to develop his skill—one that would sustain him when he faced the task of finding work with a record.

I sang and played in the chapel services for my last three years at Lee Arrendale State Prison. I’ve since met women who tell me they remember hearing me sing in church— and they thanked me. It humbled me, that my voice and my music could have such an effect, could be a conductor for the same peace, beauty and transcendence that it brought me.

I talked and talked and talked at the Forum, until I realized I had taken up all the time. It was strange and wonderful to be asked about my experience with music in prison. The transformative power of art is no new idea—everyone has felt it, and yet we forget that the people who have been condemned, hidden out of sight and out of mind, need it too. The artist in a world without color, the musician in a room with only her voice bouncing off cement walls, the writer stripped down to the basics of pen and paper and his words—they are bound and confined, but their inner lives are rich, and they matter.

About the guest contributor:

Page Dukes is a formerly incarcerated writer, musician and college student. She grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of a touring singer/ songwriter who brought her along on the road during school breaks. She experienced life on the road with her mom and played in her own band back home, but started using drugs in her early teens, and by the age of 18 was hopelessly addicted to heroin. She committed armed robbery at 20 and served the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison. While incarcerated she taught writing classes in the GED program, studied theology with the Atlanta Theological Association, trained and re-homed shelter dogs with the Forever Friends Canine Rescue, and performed with the Voices of Hope Choir. She was released last May and since has studied journalism and philosophy, worked as a reporting intern at the Marshall Project in New York this summer and the publications chief at the Roar, Piedmont College’s student media. As a founding member of the Athens Reentry Collaborative, she and several post-incarcerated peers work with academics and advocates to provide resources and support to reentering citizens in Athens, Georgia. She recently celebrated 11 and a half years clean.

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.

From the Audience and Classroom at Oregon State Penitentiary

About the guest blogger: Michael Zinkowski has taught college-credit writing classes at Oregon State Penitentiary as well as youth correctional facilities in Oregon.

Yesterday I was an audience member for a play-in-progress entirely written and performed by inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary. For the last year, I’ve taught college-credit Writing courses there and one of my students invited me, looking for my feedback on the script he’d largely written. As both inmates and members of the “general public” entered and took their seats in the Chapel room, two guitarists and a keyboardist, all inmates, jammed together. It was a soaring prog-rock instrumental that carried us into the headspace we’d need to be for the play.

I took my seat towards the back right and saw my student (we’ll call him David) perched atop the radiator in the opposite corner of the room, behind the musicians. He sat there, shoulder-length dreads and thick-framed glasses, his hand covering his mouth like The Thinker. With his own office and a thousand responsibilities on the education floor, I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so still or unmoving. In his late 30s, over 20 of which have been spent inside prison walls, he’s possibly the most positively-driven and focused person I’ve ever met, using every waking moment to spread love and compassion, to atone. As I took my journal out to take notes, he looked out through the barred window.

What I didn’t know, is that the play had essentially already begun. After a lanky, older guy wearing a transparent latex glove passed out chocolate chip cookies and cups of water to the crowd of about 30, David stood up, continued to glare at the world out the window, out over the walls of the prison, and began a boisterous, gripping monologue. It felt like a sermon.

His imagery wove everything in the cosmos together, including the “invisible population in the middle of a city.” He functioned as the spoken-word narrator of the play, speaking from the all-knowing perspective of a bird who’d flown into the hospice care room here at OSP. The play featured many vignettes and characters, including the personified voice of Cancer, surrounding the story of a dying inmate, Michael Popper, Sr. David’s wisdom-inflicted bird interjected to help tie the narrative together.

To underscore just how invisible a man becomes dying in hospice care inside a maximum security prison, no one performed the role of Michael Sr. Instead, family members, prison guards, a doctor and nurse all spoke to a voiceless piano bench. Michael Sr.’s silence and invisibility was powerful because it turned our attention to the interconnectivity of all these other characters, each one essentially speaking to themselves but about related struggles. We can put someone inside the walls of a prison but we cannot, the play suggested, no matter how hard we might try, sever the connections they have with the world.

After a “talk-back,” in which members of the audience offered praise and critique, I got up and congratulated David on his performance, on the script, on his ability to make it all work somehow. The audience clapped and cheered as loud as they could without calling too much attention to itself. We were inside a prison after all. However, by no means was this the first time I’d been impressed with him or any of the other student-inmates I’ve had. In fact, my sheer delight and excitement I felt reminded me, unfortunately, that I sometimes reinforce commonly held beliefs about the abilities, talents, and intelligence of the human beings who live inside the prison’s walls.

Without being too scientific about it, it’s probably safe to say that American culture assumes the worst about prisoners. I don’t simply mean of their ethical choices or their “criminal nature” but of their potential and their capacities. And though the last year has taught me nothing but how smart, focused, artistic, grateful, and compassionate my student-inmates can be, I’m sometimes left asking myself: why should I be so surprised over and over?

Realistically, yes, I’m allowed the smile across my face whenever a student here reads a moving, original poem or performs a gripping monologue from the perspective of a talking bird or shows me a hugely improved draft of a 20-page research essay. And, of course, I do. I’m allowed the instinct I have to say “that was amazing,” “great job,” or “I can’t wait to hear the next draft!” and so I do.

Sometimes, though, I struggle with the origins of my excitement. If I’m surprised, is it because I, too, carry with me this idea that these guys shouldn’t be as smart as they consistently prove they are? If I’m moved, is it because the level of work is higher quality than I expected? Did I have low expectations in the first place? And did I have these expectations because I, too, hold the belief that being a prisoner necessarily means one has intellectual or artistic limits?

Probably. It’s something I continually work to deconstruct. It’s probably also true, though, that the quality of their work often surpasses that of my students at “regular” community colleges and that the odds are often very stacked against them and have been before they even got here. Can I not feel, then, that the high quality of work they produce, creatively or academically, is indeed a triumph?

My student-inmates know the world thinks the least of them. Sometimes their families do. Sometimes they, themselves, are burdened by these expectations. Is it in spite of those attitudes that these men excel, or because of them?

Right now I don’t have a solid answer. I’m sure haven’t even asked all the right questions or listed all the variables at play. So I don’t think I need a solid answer yet, but I’d like to use this blog to explore some of the questions I’ve already asked and share stories to complicate our ideas about prisoners, about their potential, and how when we talk about “their” potential we really mean our potential.