The Complex Prison Creative Part 2

Samuel Morris & Timmy Walker in 12th Night
Timmy Walker's Feste adjusts Duke Orsino's crown (Samuel "Minister" Morris). Photo: Rehabilitation Through the Arts

You can read Part 1 of this story here.


I’m 20 minutes late for my scheduled arrival time at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, and this is really stressing me out. In order to attend the Rehabilitation Though the Arts community performance of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, I’ve had to submit a detailed letter to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) explaining what I was writing, for whom, when I would be there, and how many of the inmate performers I would be interviewing for the piece. I’ve also had to provide details about any objects I was planning on bringing in with me, including paper and pen, but I’ve also been told that most items are considered contraband and will need to be checked. Money and smartphone devices, in particular, are no-nos.

Having hundreds of people come into direct physical contact with the inmates presents obvious security concerns, and prison officials don’t want to take any chances. I’ve been told to arrive by 3:30 for a scheduled 6pm show. This will give officers time to examine my belongings, run me through the metal detector and pat me down. Then I’ll be allowed into the common area (where prisoners normally see their families) to interview some of the actors and observe them preparing for the performance. It’s important that I not get caught in the inevitable logjam of arriving audience members or else I may not have time to talk to the guys.

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I thought I would be anxious about meeting the prisoners, some of whom have been incarcerated for very serious offenses while others are casualties of the increasingly pointless, wasteful and morally dubious War on Drugs. These are the men of color that I’ve been conditioned almost since birth to fear as a white, middle-class person. However, I realize as I approach the gates that it’s interacting with the guards that I’m most on edge about.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Interacting with the guards has me on edge.[/pullquote]

I nervously clutch my medical ID card identifying me as a person with metal implants in their body (I recently had titanium prosthetic stirrup bones implanted in my middle ears) and rehearse in my mind how I’m going to calmly explain my situation to them as I repeatedly set off the metal detector. Even though my comfortable position within society has insulated me from ever having to interact with the criminal justice system, I can feel its power dynamic that privileges agents of the police state over any other citizens exerting an all-pervasive tug on me as I walk up to the check-in area.

Two other people are with me, a man and a woman, whom I assume to be relatives of one of the actors. I am permitted to stand inside while they are told to wait out in the parking lot. I hope this is because I am press and not because of the color of my skin or my facial features, but I’m not so sure. Luckily, a staff member of RTA is also present being checked in along with a camera crew. It’s taking a very long time for the officers to comb through all of their equipment, so my tardiness doesn’t seem to be noticed.

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Despite being the only person standing in the vestibule, at one point I am moved approximately two feet to my right and a stanchion is placed in front of me. Apparently my lone presence was making the corrections officer handling visitor in-take feel “overwhelmed.” I begin to worry that my backpack is going to be too big for the rather small lockers arrayed behind her, and when I’m finally motioned forward, they cannot find my name on the list. I start to panic. This will be my only opportunity to see the work. Fortunately, the RTA employee is still present, and he’s able to help them find me on another manifest. I’m finally waved through the metal detector. It’s not my ears that set off the machine but a single overlooked penny in my back pocket .

Setting Up

From left: Darian Bennett, Shedrick Blackwell (in glasses) as Antonio, Jason Calkins, and Jermaine Archer as Sir Toby Belch. Photo: Rehabilitation Through the Arts.

Sing Sing sits on the banks of the Hudson. When I enter the long room humming with activity, I am immediately struck by the spectacular view of the Palisades that is visible from the wall of windows overlooking the river. If this were real estate, it would fetch top dollar. I can’t even begin to imagine the agony of being exposed to this glimpse of nature and sunset and flowing movement every day of your life and have it always be tantalizingly just out of reach.

I’m also surprised to see that almost all of the officers are people of color. The pop cultural stereotype of white guards and black prisoners, at least in this situation, is not supported by the evidence. As is usual, the truth of any situation is always far more complex than its representation.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“I need to learn how to better express my love.” [/pullquote]

I sit down to talk to some of the actors and the assistant director of the production, Lawrence Bartley. As part of the audition process, director Kate Powers had invited potential cast members to state which character they wanted to play most and why. One of them had replied that he wanted to be Sebastian (the lost twin of the play’s leading character Viola) because “I am a student of love, and I need to learn how to better express my love to my family.” (He got the part.) So I’m not surprised that the men I speak to are deeply thoughtful and articulate about the play and its larger significance to them.

Involvement with RTA goes far beyond being just a fun thing for them to do to pass the time while doing time. Successfully completing the program means that the men have demonstrated leadership, reliability, and a capacity to compromise, accept direction, and work in tandem as a team. Tackling Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and complicated prose improves literary skills and cultural knowledge. Having to succinctly state what character they want to play and why provides valuable practice for future job interviews. All of these things are noted and then recorded in each man’s inmate case file. Acting in the play could get them released sooner by the parole board since it shows evidence of positive, goal-directed behavior (ironically for a play whose comic characters are so funny precisely because they behave so badly).

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Every man I speak to expresses gratitude for the program. They also each in his own way make the point that if they had been exposed to the arts earlier in their lives, their paths might very well have been different. Darian Bennett, who had been involved with RTA’s visual arts program for several years before deciding to try the new challenge of theater, tells me that Michelangelo is his favorite painter. However, he had never heard of the Renaissance master until after he had been locked up and ordered an art book from the commissary. Despite having a passion for drawing, he had never once set foot in any of New York’s world-class museums, even though he was born and raised in the city. He talks about the nuanced differences between the depictions of the Madonna and Child by his hero as opposed to those painted by Raphael. “Why did I have to go to prison to learn about this stuff?”


[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The Bard’s holiday confection casts its spell.[/pullquote]

The entire time that I’m interviewing the actors, audience members have been filtering into the room. Cake and coffee are served. The crowd files past paintings created by members of the visual art class. Finally at 6:30, half an hour later than the stated curtain time, the show begins. Timmy Walker’s Feste launches into a Motown-inspired number complete with backup dancers doing choreographed moves to live music provided by a band comprises yet more inmates. (Later he’ll sing a rousing rendition of The Temptations classic “Just My Imagination.”) Shakespeare’s holiday confection of gender ambiguity and unrequited passion begins to work its moonlight spell.

The audience is clearly responding most to the trio of clown characters, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Feste, who are ably joined by Powers herself as Maria. When I had asked her what thematic aspects of Shakespeare’s text she was finding herself and the cast drawn to, she had replied:

Losing the person you’re closest to and figuring out to how to go on from that loss…but then being able to recover something that you thought had been irrevocably lost.…The Sir Toby, Andrew, Feste stuff also resonates really powerfully for them…because of the recklessness, because of the drinking and the consequences of it. That’s something they understand in a way that I don’t because the consequences of their misbehavior or their moments of excess are way bigger that any I’ve ever suffered.

This identification is shining through in the performances. When Sir Toby (the excellent Jermaine Archer) confronts a meddling Antonio (the equally excellent Shedrick Blackwell) with “You, sir, why what are you?” and then draws his sword, the dangerous masculine rage lying just beneath this character’s mien of drunken joviality becomes startlingly palpable.

Joseph Occhione camps it up as Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Joseph Occhione camps it up as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Photo: Rehabilitation Through the Arts.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek, in contrast, is all limp-wristed, blue-wigged foppishness. He’s played by Joe Occhione, who also happens to be the only white principal male actor in the cast. I can feel myself tensing. Is this going to be an uncomfortable exercise in “fag face”? I can honestly say that, for the first time in a lifetime of theater-going, I am seeing the only actor onstage who most closely physically resembles me being presented entirely as the butt of the joke. It’s a small dose of what people of color from all ethnic backgrounds have experienced for centuries. Fortunately, Occhione’s camping is affectionate and not hostile, and the audience responds in kind. They eat up his antics, and every one of his exit lines gets big applause.

And then it’s over. More cake is served to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday. We line up, IDs in hand, to begin the process of being checked out. The cast stand by the exit and each one of them shakes hands with every member of the audience under the signs that say “No Physical Contact.” They thank us for attending the show. The enormity of this thanks bores through me with the weight of its longing for normalcy. They start to get out of costume. It’s the last time they’ll be allowed to wear civilian clothes for another year. They are leaving the freedom of Illyria to return to the imprisonment of Ossining. They won’t even be able to read this article about their work because Internet access is forbidden.

Timmy Walker as Feste
Timmy Walker as Feste imagining things. Photo: Rehabilitation Through the Arts.

I step outside and instinctively recoil from the rain that had started while I was there. I had neglected to bring an umbrella despite the weather report, and I am annoyed at my own stupidity. But then I realize that any one of those men inside would give anything to feel this rain, so I walk to the train station and choose instead to be thankful for its cool wetness. I get to make that choice. I get to pick out my own clothes to wear each morning. I get to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and look at priceless Madonnas with Child up close to my heart’s content. I get to walk around sometimes with a marijuana joint in my pocket and never once have to think about ending up in a place like this.

When I board the train, coincidentally the family members who had arrived with me that afternoon are sitting right behind me. It turns out that the woman is the sister of Carl Moore, one of the men I had interviewed. I tell her that he shared with me how long he’s been locked up, and she tells me that his current sentence is for a parole violation. She alludes to it having been something “stupid.” I wonder if it was something like being out past curfew time, something most of us wouldn’t think twice about, but I don’t ask for specifics. He had already completed the sentence for the crime he originally committed, she tells me, and now he’s back in. I ask her how often she gets to see her brother, and she looks both wary and guilty, but mostly she just looks exhausted. Not very often, she tells me, it’s too expensive to take the train more than once or twice a year.