Cornell student actors bring prisoners' writings to life

Christian Kelley ’16 hasn’t met the incarcerated man whose words he’ll be speaking next week as an actor in a new production at the Auburn Public Theatre.

But he feels like he’s an ambassador for him, nonetheless.

“We’re giving him a voice beyond the walls and the chance to reach an audience that he wouldn’t be able to reach,” said Kelley, one of four Cornell students and one Cornell faculty member who will portray members of the Phoenix Players Theatre Group (PPTG) from the Auburn (N.Y.) Correctional Facility in “Human Again,” April 14-16 at 7:30 p.m.

“We’re just trying to let them tell their story through us and be true to their message,” said Max Joh-Carnella ’16.

The production includes video of the incarcerated men in interviews and rehearsing their own work, as well as mug shots flashed on the screen.

Bruce Levitt, professor of performing and media arts and director of the production, said the mug shots send an important message.

“We’re trying to not only give the audience a theatrical experience, but also show them the juxtaposition of three things – original writing performed by an actor who is not the person in prison, an image of the person in prison through their mug shot and the real person on video,” Levitt said. “We’re hoping to break down some stereotypes of the images people carry around of incarcerated people.”

Levitt has been a long-serving board member in the Cornell Prison Education Program, which offers classes at Auburn, a maximum security prison. The Phoenix Players Theatre Group took root in 2009; the first performance Levitt staged with the group took place in 2011, but PPTG is not a formal part of the prison education program because its founding members wanted control over their process and work.

The troupe was founded by a small group of incarcerated men who combine theater and inner healing work for transformation. They selected the name phoenix and the idea of transformation because it represents “taking your own life in your own hands,” according to the group’s website.

“PPTG is rooted in the authenticity of our lives,” said Michael Rhynes, a founder of the group. “The thing that sets us apart is that we generate the vast majority of our material from our life experiences.”

The group has produced three full-length performances at Auburn, with a fourth planned for May 12, Levitt said. The show at the Auburn Public Theatre will be the first time their work has been performed outside the prison.

The Cornell student actors say some of the stories they’ll tell resonate with them personally.

“When I watched the video, I saw how much theater had done for him; I could relate because I knew how much it has meant to me,” said Joshua Mensah ’18.

“The pieces reveal their thoughts and feelings and give voice to those emotions,” said Ezioma Asonye ’16.

Tickets for the April 14-16 show are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. They can be purchased online at or by calling the box office at 315-253-6669.

The performance in sponsored by the Department of Performing and Media Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts and the Auburn Citizen newspaper.

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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