From Prison to the Stage

The formerly incarcerated are finding ways to tell, sing, or perform their own stories

| 11 Aug 2022 | 11:53

I recently reviewed an off-Broadway play called “A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island,” a two-character piece about the experience of Rich Roy. As a young man, Roy’s family connections helped him do only six months for a fatal car accident. But the play is about how he watched others of less privilege – usually of a different color – suffer.

“I became a writer when they put me on the Rikers Review newspaper,” Roy told me. “After I got out, I knew that I was going to write about my experience there.” It began as an in-prison article, then a book, and eventually a play. “I’m shocked about how all this turned out,” he says. “A producer is now talking about turning my story into a movie.”

Another off-Broadway play, “Hooded: or Being Black for Dummies,” recently had a sold-out run at 59 E. 59. It dealt with two diametrically opposed teenagers in the same jail cell. The playwright, Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, did not serve time himself, but he talked to many who had.

Films, books, and shows about prison are nothing new. (“Shawshank,” anyone?) What is happening more and more, however, is the formerly incarcerated are finding ways to tell, sing, or perform their own stories. They are often motivated by others who see creativity in their suddenly-free futures.

People like Dave Coogan, a popular professor of Writing and English at Virginia Commonwealth University. “When I moved to Richmond, I started visiting the local jails,“ he says. “I refused to believe these people made conscious choices to become criminals, but rather were caught up in narratives that had come to include crime. I thought maybe I could help them write about what led them to jail. “That turned into a book, that I recommend, called “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail.” It too has been adapted into a play that may travel here.

Re-Entry Center

Speaking of traveling, you can head to Rockland, Maine in October to hear the story of one Norman Kehling, who was given a 44-year sentence, including seven in solitary, at Maine State Prison. (He burned down a building.) “The judge told me that my chances for rehabilitation were as bleak as any he’d seen,” says Kehling. Eventually, he served 30 years, then transitioned to a re-entry center where a woman named Larraine Brown was teaching theater.

Together they wrote “For the Next Guy,” with one actor portraying nine characters. New York author Leslie Bennetts knows the couple, has seen the work, and says, “Norman’s life is so inspiring because it’s the story of a man who learned the values and practices of toxic masculinity to defend himself against abuse, and became a violent criminal. Yet, he finally figured out that he had to overcome that in order to survive and grow.”

Daniel Bergner is a New York Times Magazine writer and the author of five books. One, “God Of The Rodeo,” takes readers inside Angola, the maximum security prison in Louisiana. Another, “Sing For Your Life,” is about Ryan Speedo Green, an acclaimed Black opera singer in companies like the Metropolitan Opera, who had spent time in a juvenile detention facility. He and Bergner have “performed” conversations together in various places, and the idea of something scripted happening is likely. “We talk, we act a little, he sings,” says Bergner.

Three years ago, Kenyatta Emmanuelle got out of prison after 24 years. The night of his release he was singing at Carnegie Hall. The composer-performer is now an Artist in Residence at the Initiative for a Just Society at Columbia University. “I have always been artistic,” he says, “but I wouldn’t be singing the songs I am singing, and touching people the way I am, if I had not been incarcerated. When you find yourself in a space where expression is stifled, it compels you to dig deep.”

And the beat goes on. The psychological thriller “Black Bird” is Apple’s popular six-episode mini-series that Dennis Lehane adapted from the prison memoir “In With the Devil,” written by James Keene with Hillel Levin. “College Behind Bars,” an Emmy-nominated, four- part documentary, is an intimate look at the lives and experiences of a dozen students from New York’s Bard College whose lives have combined both education and incarceration.

For the formerly incarcerated, now telling their own tales, they feel fortunate rather than bitter. And they have new memories. Norman Kehling, for example, recalls performing his one-man piece for correction officers and the like. “I got a standing ovation,’ he says, “and I saw tears in my warden’s eyes. I realized then that this is powerful stuff, and a much better high than the drugs we used, which got us into so much trouble.”

Michele Willens’ weekly report, Stage Right..or Not,” is heard on the NPR affiliate Robinhoodradio.