Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Unknown Endings by Christine Marie Brown

Going into the King Lear process I was excited, curious and a little hesitant about performing at Monroe Correctional Complex for Men as part of Freehold's Engaged Theatre tour. How would we be received? Would they enjoy the play? Would I feel safe? The only other time I’d visited a prison was in Maryland (where I grew up) when I was in high school. I guess the teachers thought it’d be a good idea for us to get “scared straight” — maybe some of you remember this program? It was not a pleasant experience being yelled at by inmates who were hoping to put the fear of God into us in the hope that we’d all steer clear of penitentiaries. So, my frame of reference rested between that high school field trip and some pop-culture fare like HBO’s OZ. Despite this, I was eager to meet the real people who were going to be our audience.

And then they turned out to be so enthusiastic and involved in the story.

They were so vocal; talking back to the characters when directly addressed, surprised by the violence, and eager to laugh. When it was over, they stayed to shake our hands and ask us when we’d be back for a future performance. Such gratitude. So many presumptions debunked at once.

For those of us who know this story so well, it felt magical to experience it with an audience who didn’t know the play. It left me with a longing to connect more personally. I would get my opportunity for that when we went back for a workshop.

Back at Monroe a few weeks later, we wait in a classroom space with linoleum floors and fluorescent lights for the men to arrive to the workshop. They slowly trickle in; men of varying ages and races, some smiling, some uncertain of their choice to be there. I relate to that feeling. I am out of my element; self-conscious, aware of every handshake, of every time I say my name. I was looking forward to this but I am caught off guard. Here I’m not performing; there are no lines or costumes or sets to hide behind, there is no script. Who am I in this place? What can I possibly offer? But I do want to see what, if anything, there is between us. What divides us? What connects us? Thankfully, there are people like Robin Lynn Smith, Daemond Arrindell, Reggie Jackson and Sarah Harlett with me who have done this many times before. I look to them. They are my signposts and my talismans for this journey. They seem to be so at ease.

Once we get about 30-ish guys, we begin. This number of participants is really encouraging. In addition to the 7 of us, our Assistant Director Meme Garcia is working a small, child-size puppet named Sophie. Many of the men are drawn to the puppet. We start by asking the men to throw out themes from King Lear onto a big piece of construction paper. Then we begin the theatre games by creating tableaus based on the King Lear themes and then move into improv exercises. We discover quickly that these guys are ready to play, there is no testing the water here - they jump in, head first. It is beautiful, fun, and inspiring.

But the most amazing part of the day is when we have time to share some original writing. Based on prompts Daemond gives us, we have to write a letter to a fallen hero — could be someone we know, could be a fictional character or a famous person we have looked up to. We write our letters, in silence, separately. When our time is up, Daemond tells us all we must write another letter - from our fallen hero back to us - a response to the first letter. We hear audible groans, but we all write. When our time is up on the second letter, Daemond opens the floor for sharing. All of us from Freehold are prepared to read to get the ball rolling if need be. They have been so game with all of the activities, but this is different, personal. Will they want to share?

Several hands shoot in the air. And after the first man has read, hand after hand goes up as we progress. They have been told they don’t have to share or that they can read a small part of what they have written, but each of them gifts us with BOTH letters. The men write to family members, famous idols, and 2 even write to Santa. Their letters are, by turns, funny and gut wrenching -- some are even raps. A few men can barely get through reading what they have written they are so choked up. The guy next to me gently encourages a struggling fellow inmate, “Take your time, brother.”

But what is most moving are their response letters. When they take on the voice and walk in the shoes of the ones who have hurt them, the amount of compassion and understanding is so well articulated. I am heartened, humbled, undone. In some letters, the need to forgive and be forgiven feels so palpable; it’s as if there is another presence in the room with us. And I am blown away by their openness, these hulking men whose frames are shaken to the core by reading aloud their stories of betrayal, loss and abandonment. The circle of sharing begins to feel like a thin place; we feel things happening which none of us can see. But the air is shifting, one story at a time.

Last, one man asks to hear from Sophie, our puppet-child, and the lone female voice who ends up reading before our time is up. She writes of an older sister who has left before showing her the correct recipe for fairy food. We find out from the sister’s letter that she has gone to camp—and will be back for Sophie and the fairies. We are grateful for a happy ending, smiles abound. Last, as Robin leads us, we take a breath together as a group. We inhale, and then exhale - and I am gone.

What is it we have just gone through together? It feels like a blessing - or might it be that the fairies have been with us? In any case, my face is leaking as I shake these means’ hands. I thank them and wonder when I can come back. I have forgiven myself my awkwardness, my fear, my assumptions and I feel a bit more human. I am ready to laugh, open to cry, grateful.

Annette Toutonghi (left) and Christine Brown (right) in King Lear. Photo by John Ulman.

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