Tobias Liu, Contributing Photographer

Naomi Wilson sat at a keyboard, soft chords floating underneath her words — words read by a Yale student to her left. 

“How can we communicate the most overwhelming experiences in life — pain, abandonment, loss, injustice, the longing for heaven? How do we communicate a language beyond words? We sing,” the student read.

And in response, Wilson, a formerly incarcerated woman who spent 37 years in prison after receiving a commutation for a life sentence, sang. Her voice filled the walls of Marquand Chapel, rousing cries buoyed by the tinkling of the keyboard underneath her fingers. 

“Nobody knows,” she sang, “the troubles I’ve seen.”

On Friday, the Institute of Sacred Music hosted “Gospel, Rap and Social Justice,” a collaborative performance featuring formerly incarcerated people and Yale students.

The performance represented the culmination of Ronald Jenkins’ class, “Gospel, Rap, and Social Justice: Prison and the Arts,” a course that uses Dante’s Divine Comedy to explore the “parallels between Dante’s journey out of hell and the life journeys of men and women impacted by the justice system.

Students worked with formerly incarcerated individuals to transform their stories into theatrical monologues, connect them to music, and structure them in a theatrical piece that interweaved the stories, music and Dante’s Divine Comedy together.

Jenkins, who has facilitated theater workshops in prisons in Italy, Indonesia and the U.S. for over a decade, was invited to teach the course as a visiting professor at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music eight years ago. Understanding life inside prisons is a large part of the course.

“The public needs to be educated about what goes on inside prisons that our tax dollars are funding, and this performance gives audiences a rare opportunity to hear first person accounts of the impact the prison system has on millions of incarcerated individuals and their families,” said Jenkins.

Jenkins cites his time in a South African jail cell after being arrested as part of Apartheid protests as a source of inspiration for his work.

“I was in a cell with about a hundred guys that was grim and dark and crowded, but they transformed it into a place where they would rehearse freedom — they would sing the national anthem of Free Black South Africa — and I began to understand the power of the arts to transform the experiences of people in prison,” said Jenkins.

The students and their formerly incarcerated partners sat in a half-circle on stage. The personal stories of the five formerly incarcerated individuals’ times in prison were interwoven with quotes from Dante’s Divine Comedy and gospel-style and rap songs performed by Wilson, BL Shirelle and by the brother of one of the formerly incarcerated individuals.

At the end of the performance, Jenkins allowed for a Q&A from the audience. At one point, one of the family members of the incarcerated individuals read a poem that they had written to Jenkins to express their gratitude and the impact the program had on them.

 “Professor Jenkins, I wrote this poem and it was dedicated to you to let you know you not only helped Vernal, but you helped our family too.”

At another point, an audience member said she was so inspired by the performance that she wanted to share Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.” She performed the poem in front of the chapel, her arms dancing, her voice thick with emotion and power.

Before the pandemic, Jenkins would run the class inside of prisons — Yale students and their incarcerated partners would present their collaborations inside of prisons and the students would perform their stories on campus as well. Two of the men who took part in the class before the pandemic while they were serving time in the MacDougall Walker Correctional Facility are now free and were part of the collaboration.

One of them, Robert Day, spent ten years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Day suffered from heart issues in prison — his heart stopped eight times. He emphasized the impact the Jenkins’ class had on the prison.

“In prison, you got all these guys doing push-ups, everybody wanna be the toughest, everyone wanna hurt each other,” he said. “But when we performed that play, you would’ve never known, all these tough guys came together and were like ‘oh, I wanna do it next time!’”

Marcus Harvin, who served time in MacDougall Walker Correctional Facility as well but is now a Fellow in the Yale Prison Education Initiative, described his entry to Yale to a rousing ovation from the audience.

“My ID opens the same doors yours does,” he said. “And just a few months ago, I couldn’t even get through my own door without showing an ID. As an inmate, I became an Ivy League student. I’m a fellow at Yale University. A fellow at Yale law school. Certified for Yale School of Medicine. I’m about to start my public ministry. And this all happened in 5 months. Could you imagine 5 years? I have a yale ID. I have a netID. I’m there. 403853 — that was my inmate number. Now it’s mth19. That’s how full circle life comes. That’s how full circle life goes.”

“The light is still going to shine, the sun is still going to shine, and life is literally what you make of it,” he said.

Shirelle, who served ten years in prison after a shootout with undercover police left her with bullet wounds and cracked ribs, and Wilson, who was given a life sentence but was commuted after 37 years, are both artists for Die Jim Crow Records, a record label for prison-impacted musicians with a mission statement to ​​”dismantle stereotypes around race and prison in america by amplifying the voices of our artists.” 

To Shirelle, hearing the students read her story to an audience of hundreds gives her hope for the future.

“I feel very humbled, very honored, very hopeful for the future that people are engaged enough to hear the experiences of incarcerated people’s stories,” she said. “No one of us has the same story, and I think that that’s what people don’t realize about people who are incarcerated. They just assume things about people, but every story is different.”

Wilson now works for Senator-elect John Fetterman as a commutation specialist to give others that are doing long term and life sentences “the hope that they need,” as she said. 

“God just put me in the right place because I love people — I love to encourage people, and I know what it’s like to be on the inside and to not have family members or those so-called friends to keep in touch with,” she said.” So I love what I do — God has blessed me.”

In the closing comments, one of the formerly incarcerated individuals gave the audience a “challenge.”

“You see these two beautiful women here? You see these two great men right here, and you see myself, right? These are the faces of people behind those walls,” he said. “What we must do as a society is stop labeling people as predators. Stop labeling them as convicts or criminals and see them — if they are guilty of what they had been accused of — as just the person who simply made a mistake. Romans 3:23 says, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Understand that — by the grace of God, we are here.”

Wilson and Shirelle will collaborate with Jenkins to perform a play about the story of their lives in March 2023.

TOBIAS LIU