Miracle Village: Embodying Sex Offenders on the NYC Stage

This part of America may be hard to see, making it crucial not to look away.

Ken Barnett and Amy Gaither Hayes in "America Is Hard to See." Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton famously coined the phrase “It takes a village,” she referred to the need for a safe and supportive community to raise children. It’s a lovely image, but the cynic in me can’t help but to face the reality that some children will inevitably stray from the village. Some will horrify us enough to land on the registry for sex offenders. If we extend the metaphor, then, does it take a village to rehabilitate sex offenders? Do these individuals deserve to reintegrate into the village after they betrayed what it stands for? Do we cast them into sugarcane isolation? Or is that more of a community than they deserve?

It is precisely this knot of questions that surrounds Miracle Village, a residential community of 150 sex offenders outside Pahokee, FL, which serves as the subject of investigation for Travis Russ, artistic director of Life Jacket Theatre Company. If audiences expect his new play, America Is Hard to See, to loosen this knot, they will be confronted with something else entirely.

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In 2015, Russ and his research team immersed for several months in Miracle Village, which is the largest community of its kind in the US. All residents have served their sentences; all exist in a remote swath of Palm Beach County where regulations against sex-offenders are among the harshest in the nation. Miracle Village addresses this, since offenders must live a minimum of 2,500 feet from any bus stop, school or place where children congregate. In fact, the town is so remote that it is 40 minutes to the nearest supermarket.

As Russ’ team compiled thousands of pages of interviews and archival research, it became clear that the inhabitants of Miracle Village speak to the theater company’s mission: telling the stories of the marginalized. As the composer and music director of America Is Hard to See, Priscilla Holbrook, told me, “They are glad that someone is saying ‘tell us about yourselves.’ And we’re not the first people who have gone there and said, ‘Hey, can I interview you or take a picture?’ But there’s a way in which this is less a one-stop, see-you-later kind of process. The whole point is to share a lot of stories that have been in the shadows.”

Theater’s unique strength is its ability to put something live in close proximity to a human audience, to represent something in space. “If I was looking at this story from a journalistic perspective,” Russ says, “I’d have different objectives. I think my objectives as a theater artist were to find the grey areas. A project like this gave me the permission to ask uncomfortable questions and go past a superficial level with my interviewees. It gave them permission to tell us things they’d never told anyone in their lives before. And there’s a responsibility that comes with that fact.”

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To prepare for this article, I trolled message boards that featured stories of Miracle Village. I spotted every opinion but a moderate one. People either viciously disparage lawmakers for a flawed judicial and social-service system or else opine that hell would be too cushy a community for sex offenders. As the nation divides ever more deeply into red and blue, is it possible for a vision of Miracle Village that’s grey?

If stories are digestible meals, America Is Hard to See is thus a spicy theatrical act. It’s subject is ruled by our gut; our assessment of the show may be meted down either as repulsion or as empathy. To represent this subject in an unbiased way therefore has the potential to leave audiences frustrated for something radical. I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard. In a world is full of injustice, if you put bodies on a stage and put me in a seat and solve something for me, I, as much as anyone, will walk away grateful and comforted. Audiences demand stances and statements that eschew ambiguity.

But ambiguity sits at the core of America Is Hard to See. The final product would seem to transcend “documentary theater,” a label that conjures a dry (though politically potent) taste in the mouth. This show is verdant with music, a result of the team’s observation that music has played a significant role in building bonds at Miracle Village. The show also yields two truths. First, sex offenders do commit egregious sins against our sense of community and innocence. Second, there do exist marginalized human beings who have served their time and we must decide, as a society, what becomes of them. To communicate this theatrically, Russ and Holbrook found music the most fluent medium. “In cinematic terms, it’s the close up,” Russ explains. “You can zoom in on somebody and see their soul. Music is poetry.”

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This is the play’s basic skeleton: five characters represent inhabitants of Miracle Village on a sparse stage. The characters play their own instruments and sing their own songs, with lyrics drawn verbatim from the team’s interviews. The performance exists as journalism and as composition. Like the content, the form of the show exists in a state of complexity.

Our current American moment features the audience corpus: a body with a stomach and tastes, appetites and asses. But theater is always a negotiation between bodies on stage and bodies in seats. Just as challenging form and content are needed on the stage, so too audiences must willing to put their asses in hotter seats, their bodies challenged by discomfort and uncertainty. This part of America may be hard to see, which makes it all the more crucial to refuse the impulse to look away.

Twenty-five hundred feet is the enforced distance between the inhabitants of Miracle Village and Clinton’s adage and image. Running at HERE through Feb. 24, America Is Hard to See and the people of Miracle Village will reside, briefly, by proxy here in NYC. Those proxies will perform on stage; we, the audience, will look at them very closely. We will sit in our seats, acknowledge our proximity. We will engage in the difficult conversation of whether we should form a village together, and how.

Holbrook anticipates the challenge. “It’s going to be hard for a lot of people to sit in their seat and confront themselves,” she says. “I’m not a political theater person. What I hope is to create an opening in a person, in a physical person in a seat.” Good. Let us squirm. Our seats have become far too comfortable. My body has the sense that comfortable furniture kills change.