A Play About Slavery Pushes Boundaries in a New York Prison
A group of families and New York state officials gathered on a workday morning last month for a theatrical performance of a historical drama about slavery and human freedom. But it was an unusual setting for a play, especially for one pondering the question of liberation, because the stage was deep inside a maximum-security prison, and the actors were a group of incarcerated men, many of whom still face decades behind bars.
At the end of the play, the two-dozen cast members lined up at the front of the stage as one actor after the other removed their costumes: a simple, white T-shirt with the word “slave” or the character’s slave name written across the chest. Below the stage, in the first row, a group of suited senior corrections officials looked on uncomfortably.
Then the audience, officials included, broke into a standing ovation. The cast, someone announced, would be allowed offstage for a few minutes to greet their families, and for a brief, chaotic moment, the actors rushed into the auditorium to tearfully hug their mothers, wives, and children as a group of guards stood close by watching. Then the men grouped back on stage to be counted, searched, and escorted back to their cells.
The performance was the second and last staging of a play — “Father Comes Home From the Wars” by Suzan-Lori Parks — by a group of men incarcerated at the Green Haven prison in Stormville, New York. The production was the culmination of a monthslong program with Rehabilitation Through the Arts, or RTA, an initiative that for more than two decades has offered arts programs to hundreds of people incarcerated in prisons across the state. A day earlier, the cast had performed before an enthusiastic audience of 350 fellow incarcerated men. Now, for the first time ever, officials at Green Haven had opened the prison’s gates to families and outside visitors.
For the duration of the two-hour play, a tragic if at times absurdist drama set in a slave cabin and on a Civil War battlefield, cast and audience seemed to forget they were deep inside several perimeters of walls and heavily secured gates. “I felt like I was at home, watching a TV show,” the sister of one of the actors told me.
There were reminders, of course: The radios of a handful of guards standing along the auditorium’s walls crackled in the background as the play unfolded on stage. And Anthony Annucci, the acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, introduced the performance by joking to the audience to silence their cellphones — a reminder that visitors had left all belongings behind and gone through a meticulous security screening before being allowed into the auditorium. The play started late because some family members had been held up at security. Other obstacles to doing theater in prison were playfully incorporated into the performance itself: Instead of a prop gun, an actor brandished a cardboard cutout spelling out the word “gun.” And because gray and navy were not only the colors of the Confederate and Union armies, but also those of New York corrections staff uniforms, actors playing soldiers on both sides of the conflict instead wore tan jackets, with “Confederate Gray Army Coat” and “Union Blue Army Coat” written on them.
But if staging a theatrical production in a maximum-security prison poses countless logistical challenges, doing so with a cutting play about slavery set in the midst of the Civil War, but deeply echoing the present reality of mass incarceration, pushes boundaries in untested ways. “We ask for a lot of out-of-the-box thinking for a production inside a maximum-security prison,” Katherine Vockins, RTA’s founder and executive director, told the audience before the play.
“I cannot underscore how difficult it is to do a show like this in this kind of environment,” echoed Paul Fitzgerald, the play’s director. “[This play] brings up a lot of issues about the American story.”
Prison officials had reviewed and approved the script before production started; some of the play’s most controversial scenes had been cut preemptively by RTA staff because of fears they might have “riled up the population in a certain way,” said Quanel Miller, one of the actors. “We’re limited here.”
“You kind of have to imagine what might be inflammatory or complicated in a way that’s just too much to take on and anticipate, and make those cuts accordingly,” Fitzgerald told me. “You just try to feel how uncomfortable can this get, how much can you push the envelope to create meaningful art, to create dialogue, to bring up issues without going too far given the environment.”
Despite the cuts, the performance was provocative and often uncomfortable. And while every line had been cleared ahead of time, there is a difference between reading stage directions in a script and watching two-dozen men, many imprisoned for decades, remove their “slave” uniforms and stomp on a stage declaring themselves free.
Things Changed for Me Here
“Father Comes Home From the Wars” is a difficult play under any circumstances. The drama traces the story of Hero, an enslaved man whose master promises him freedom in exchange for his service in the Civil War — “on the wrong side” of the war, as Hero’s close friend Homer reminds him early on. The play opens with Hero debating his choice, and Homer arguing that it is in fact no choice at all, that both options are “two sides of the same coin and the coin ain’t even in your pocket.”
“You’re waiting for him to give you freedom,” Homer tells Hero, “when you should take it.”
Homer himself tried that by running away. When he was caught, the master forced Hero at gunpoint to cut off his friend’s foot as punishment. But as the play progresses, the audience learns that Hero had actually snitched on Homer to the master, in exchange for yet another promise of freedom that was never fulfilled.
“‘Take your freedom’ is a line that resonates with me,” Lenox Ramsay, who played Homer, told me when I visited the cast during rehearsals. Ramsay, who is 30 years old and 11 years into a 17-year sentence, moved from prison to prison as he struggled to come to terms with his sentence, until four years ago when he landed at Green Haven and started taking college classes and discovered a passion for acting through RTA. “Things changed for me here,” he told me. “You have to make your freedom, you can’t let the time build up on you. We have this saying in prison, ‘Do the time, don’t let the time do you.’”
The play, which the cast members themselves selected, “resonated with a lot of us,” Ramsay added. In many ways, the parallels were obvious, and every line seemed to carry a double meaning when spoken in the prison context. “When I’m on that stage, I’m not acting. I really want to get away from there because I really want to get away from here,” said Melvin Davis, a 29-year-old who plays a runaway slave and is serving a 20-year sentence. “When you’re incarcerated, it’s like you’re back on the plantation.”
But the parallels are far more complex, and if the connection between slavery and incarceration was never explicit in the performance, it was nonetheless an unspoken theme throughout.
“Mass incarceration started soon after slavery ended, with vagrancy laws,” said Malcolm Baptiste, adding that he kept in his cell a copy of Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book “The New Jim Crow,” which traces a direct line from slavery to the contemporary prison system. “In the ’80s and ’90s, when I was a child, people in our community spoke about how mass incarceration was all part of the plan of those that control society.”
There is also a parallel between slavery and prison labor, Baptiste added. “We don’t get a fair wage,” he said. “No sick days, no vacation days.”
At age 42, and 24 years into a 50-to-life prison sentence, Baptiste works 30 hours a week as an assistant teacher and clerk at the prison. He makes 25 cents an hour — or $7.50 per week. At the prison’s commissary, he said, a box of Tide laundry detergent costs $5.50, almost a week’s pay. Email messages to family cost 33 cents per message and additional 33 cents for each attachment. “It’s capitalism,” he added. “Colonizers went to Africa, captured people, brought them to America and other countries, and sold them. … Today we have police targeting communities that are underserved, that are undereducated, underfunded, where there are no jobs.”
Other prisoners saw a connection between the play’s only white character — a Confederate colonel — and the mostly white guards at the prison. One of the play’s most excruciating scenes, the reenactment of a slave auction, was painfully reminiscent of the searches that incarcerated men regularly face. “This is a complicated play, it brings back feelings,” said Lamel Fabers, who played a runaway slave. “You can’t think just because I’m in prison, I’m an animal.”
“They still oppress us,” said Ernest Iverson, the play’s narrator.
When I asked him whether he thought prison staff watching the play may see a similar connection, he replied, “They’re not stupid. They’ll see the connection.”
No One Really Deserves to Be in There
If any of the corrections officials felt called out by the performance, it didn’t show. “Everyone I have spoken to thought it was a very good performance,” said Marlyn Kopp, the deputy superintendent for programs at Green Haven. “It was a hard topic, and they handled it fantastically, honestly.”
“There are very talented people here, there’s no doubt about it,” a guard assigned to monitor one of the rehearsals told me. “It was amazing.” I asked him if the play resonated in a particular way, given the prison context. “They have a connection to it,” he replied, referring to the cast. Did guards feel a similar connection? “I don’t look at things this way,” he replied. Then, speaking of his job, “Nobody aspires to do this.”
But not all the guards were interested in the talent of the performers. One told me that he thought it was “preposterous” that inmates would be offered this kind of opportunity. “We don’t like them very much, they’re friends with the guys that assault my friends,” the guard said of the volunteers coming in to teach arts workshops. “In a way, they’re the enemy.”
“I’ve heard negative feedback like, Why would anyone offer these people anything and why aren’t you out working with the families of the victims?” said Margaret Ables, who produced the play and has worked with RTA for five years. “I understand that criticism, but the positive outcomes that we’ve seen from our membership just really convince me that this program is doing the right thing.”
Kopp, the deputy superintendent, said negative views among the prison staff were rare. “Am I going to have one or two staff members not feel the same as the rest, as you have heard? The majority are the opposite,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of backlash. … If the majority felt that way, I wouldn’t be able to get this kind of production off the ground.”
In fact, the production was a massive effort, logistically, for the cast and prison staff alike. Rehearsals had to be scheduled around periodic “counts” for which the cast had to be back in their cells. Because of restrictions on the movement of those incarcerated, someone was always missing. Every prop and costume had to be preapproved, inspected, and accounted for at all times. And when outside volunteers could not be at the prison, a committee of incarcerated men ran their own rehearsals.
On the day of the performance, guards escorted families “deep into the bowel of the prison,” as someone put it, beyond the visitation room relatives normally see, down seemingly endless, cold corridors along the prison’s yards, and past metal doors leading to housing blocks where three rows of cells sit one on top of the other. It was the closest look at life inside that most outsiders had ever had.
“I got a little feel of what it’s like, and honestly, that part was horrible for me,” said Gina Davis, Melvin Davis’s younger sister, after the performance. “It’s horrible; I don’t want him to be there.”
“I just want all of these men to come home,” she added. “Hopefully this time that they spent in there, they learned their lesson, and hopefully they come home and be better people, because honestly everyone deserves a second chance and people shouldn’t spend their entire lives behind bars. … No one really deserves to be in there.”
The performance, rehearsals, and weekly classes RTA runs inside the prison offer a rare moment of escape for the program’s participants. Volunteers and staff with the program run dance, writing, visual arts, public speaking, and improvisation workshops, among other offerings. And while Green Haven also offers more traditional educational and vocational programming, RTA “allows for the inmates to grow in a totally different way than a sit-down type of program,” said Kopp, the deputy superintendent.
Most importantly, the program offers participants an opportunity to build deep relationships that the daily reality of life in prison often precludes. “Being in prison teaches you to close yourself off from trusting people,” said Melvin Davis. Theater demands the opposite. For the six months leading up to the performance, Davis rehearsed the part of Penny, the only female character in the play, as a professional actress was only allowed to join the crew for the last two weeks of rehearsals. “That was a real challenge for me, playing a female in a maximum-security prison,” said Davis, noting that he couldn’t have done it without the support of the rest of the cast. “You’re not in prison when you’re with RTA; it’s like family.”
Kevin Cocozello, the only white actor in the cast, had an equally challenging role: that of the ruthless, manic master and Confederate colonel. The character was so racist and violent that the actor originally assigned to play the part refused to do it. “It’s a really tough and ugly role for anybody, because the words and the actions of that character are so upsetting,” said Ables, the producer. “But even more so in an incarcerated space, where they’re very resonant.”
Cocozello said the role’s complexity “should be every actor’s dream.” But as an incarcerated man, 10 years into a 23-year sentence, he identified more with Hero. “Like him, I feel like there’s a part of my soul that is cut in two.”
That was a sentiment many expressed — and they credited the exposure to theater for helping them come to terms with it.
“RTA helped me bring down the mask I had put up in prison,” said Hector Rodriguez, who has spent 25 of his 45 years in prison and is a veteran of the program. “In prison, you have to be this stoic character so you can survive. This helped me find myself. I still wear a mask, but now I know it’s not me, and sometimes there’s no need to wear it.”
Alice Speri writes about justice, immigration, and civil rights. She has reported from Palestine, Haiti, El Salvador, Colombia, and across the United States. She is originally from Italy and lives in the Bronx.