Tag Archive: prison

  1. 50:13 Thinks Inside the Box

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    I sat in seminar on Wednesday afternoon and read the first page of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The “atmosphere,” Whitman proclaims in the poem, is “for my mouth forever… I am in love with it.” The “smoke of my own breath,” he says, is “my respiration and inspiration.”

    Those lines — an expansive embrace of the world, transcending the body — entered my mind on Wednesday night, as Leland Fowler (DRA ‘15) stood on a bed frame, slowly tightening a noose around his neck, and said: “Couldn’t see nothing but my breath, hanging there in front of me, my last breath.” His character is a man who, rather than being in love with the atmosphere, is in bitter and perpetual battle with it.

    A sense of being trapped in one’s own body — that is the predicament articulated so well in Yale Cabaret’s startling one-man play “50:13,” written by Jiréh Breon Holder (DRA ‘16) and directed by Jonathan Majors (DRA ‘16). The audience is seated so as to surround a prison cell which has been placed in the middle of the Cabaret’s small venue, and its members are forced into the uncomfortable position of watching Fowler through bars, illumination coming from two harsh, white lights. Dramatic tension is built into the set: how will the audience penetrate the cell? How will Fowler’s character, Dae Brown, escape it?

    At the play’s start, Brown has three days left in prison, and he yearns to be reunited with his girlfriend and infant child. A young adolescent boy occupies the cell adjacent to his, and Brown, having grown fond of him, feels urgently impelled to teach the boy all he knows of black manhood before his sentence is up. Over the course of the three days, Brown transforms occasionally into his father and his grandfather, immediately and impressively switching into new accents and body languages — in short, as one would hope an actor could, becoming a new person.

    The boy in the next cell over is not actually portrayed: Brown addresses him by looking into a camcorder outside the cell which broadcasts to four television screens on the cell’s sides. So when Brown tells the boy, “You gotta know when to sit still, do your time, and survive,” he is looking into the eyes of every audience member — each of whom is put in the place of the young black man and therefore becomes Brown’s pupil.

    Brown’s body is caged, but throughout the 50-minute production, his spirit escapes the cell’s confines through feats of memory, music, love and humor. When he reads aloud a letter from his beloved, he is suddenly in her bed again. When he slips into the role of his sharecropping grandfather, he is transported to Fulton County, Georgia.

    Most remarkably, toward the play’s end, Brown breaks out into an a cappella reworking of Tupac Shakur’s “Hail Mary.” He starts off sitting sullenly on the edge of his bed, but soon a bounce enters his step and musical backing begins to play. “Come with me, Hail Mary,” he sings, drawing out “Mary” across four notes. Fowler possesses a superb voice, and the performance is achingly beautiful. Why does he sing? How does the song fit into the plot? I don’t know, but I’m sure that’s the point. His joy is beautiful because unexpected.

    The show’s central sequence is surely the telling of the lynching story: the grandfather’s firmness in defending his little girls from bullying, the ensuing showdown between the families, the horrifying explosion of violence and the final noose-tightening speech. “I was a man,” he says defiantly. “They saw me be a man.”

    One is left to hope that being a man, and being a father, will entail a very different life for Dae Brown than for his grandfather and for his father, who, we learn, first met Dae in a prison cafeteria.

    His girlfriend’s letter says that Brown’s son is on the verge of taking his first steps, and so when Brown leaves prison, he is eager to witness the milestone, invigorated by the thought of his family’s bright future. But like “Hail Mary,” with its melancholic undertone, Brown’s optimism is tempered — by having to abandon the boy in the neighboring cell and by his violent cultural inheritance.

    Brown reaches the show’s end, then, hopeful but humbled. I’m sure playgoers will feel the same way.

  2. A Poem from the Incarcerated

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    On Saturday mornings, I park a car outside the Cheshire County Correctional Facility, and then walk through a metal detector carrying nothing but a book, perhaps a Bible, some pencils and my Yale ID. Since my freshman year I have been involved with the Yale Prison Initiative, mentoring post-GED incarcerated youth in an effort to smooth their reintegration process upon release. The prison schooling system is geared towards GED completion, and established post-GED programs are targeted at inmates with imminent release dates, marginalizing those serving longer sentences. With this in mind, I devised a four-person group that has been meeting in the prison for over a year now — myself, and three inmates, ages between 17 and 20. They have all been convicted of multiple charges ranging from armed robberies, drug possession and second-degree murder.

    One of the young inmates is a Hispanic from New Brighton, Lionel (whose name has been changed for anonymity). Lionel has the liveliest presence for someone in his situation: Every Saturday, he greets me with a warm chuckle and sincere handshake. He hangs on every word of our conversations, though at times jittering and shaking his head, explaining to me that “Ma’am, we are sheltered from the way you think.” Trying to better understand him, I asked him to write a piece that was representative of his past. The next week, Lionel showed up with his unfailing smile and this poem, asking me when he would become a published author. Well, here it is, Lionel.


    The Mighty Dollar

    By Lionel

    Cold blood spills for the warmth of a green piece of paper.

    Faces many of us never take time to admire are printed on them.

    The things these national heroes have done — it’s earned them this currency spotlight,

    but their deeds and efforts can’t compare to

    the sacrifice,

    the pain

    the torture

    some endure to have a pocket filled with their portraits.

    Most of us are careless:

    their faces go unnoticed

    and instead get crumpled into the pockets,

    pockets of individuals who crave this power,

    crave the liberty, freedom and honor of these portraited men.

    And most of us, holders of these images, have no freedom.

    We are enslaved by the vice,

    The corrupted need for one more dollar bill

    A twisted obsession with the collections of images,

    Intrinsically valueless but socially invaluable.

    What an overwhelming power does this piece of paper have —

    to pull the world together into buildings and stores and capitalism,

    or crush it into pieces — behind prison bars.

    That’s the strength of the mighty dollar.

    Only god is stronger.