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Rising from the ashes: redemption through theater at Auburn prison

By: Linda B. Glaser,  Cornell Chronicle
August 13, 2018

The process of attending a show by the Phoenix Players Theatre Group (PPTG) in Auburn Correctional Facility gives attendees a hint of what it’s like to be a prisoner in the maximum security facility. Processed, stamped, denuded of belongings, herded down long, locked corridors by prison guards, the audience is ushered into a room from which no one can leave until the corrections officers say it’s time.

Not that anyone wants to leave. All eyes are riveted on the platform at the front of the large room, an airless space cooled only marginally by scattered fans. The chattering dies down as actor Sheldon “Superb” Johnson begins to speak. He is anxious to share his world, he says, his triumphs and tragedies. Because in the audience’s positive response, “I am reminded what it feels like to be human and appreciated.”

The rest of the 7-man troupe, along with Jack Press and Elise Czuchna, two Cornell student guest performers, join Johnson on the stage as they recite their motto: “We are a community of transformation. Through the power of self-discovery, we create the opportunity to know and grow into ourselves.” 

The name of the May 24 production, “The Strength of Our Convictions: the Auburn Redemption,” echoes PPTG’s declaration of action, written in 2009 by founding member Michael Rhynes: “it is our burden and duty to prove ourselves worthy of forgiveness and trust from those we have offended. Like the mythological ‘Phoenix,’ we [each] want to rise from the ashes of an unproductive and shameful past to live in the present as a redeemed person.” 

As in the previous four performances by PPTG, the script was created from original writings by PPTG members and developed during weekly meetings at the prison facilitated by Bruce Levitt, professor of performing and media arts in the College of Arts and Sciences, and other theatre experts from Cornell and Ithaca College.

The glimpses the actors give us of their lives in the performance bite deep: Demetrius “Meat” Molina’s mention that he once shared a prison cell with his father; lifer Mark Thompson at 63 marveling that the 24-year-olds he mentors are younger than the age of his shoes.  

Some of the vignettes are funny – like Adam Roberts’ story, “Tell-Tale Typewriter,” recounting his battle with two cockroaches that invaded the typewriter in his cell -- while Jerome Walter and Ray Van Clief offer poignant looks at their childhoods.

Other stories grip the audience unexpectedly: a dead silence falls on the room as one actor recounts being sexually abused in “I’ll Tell You When You’re Older.”

Malina and Tyreek Williams’ point-counter point rap, “Blame/Conspiracy Theory,” accompanied by Robert Lawrence’s beat boxing, drives home how normal prison was for many of these men growing up, something that happened to every family. This piece tackles the larger societal issues, invoking Michelle Alexander and her book “The New Jim Crow.” As Molina says at the end of the scene, “...the state of his community has desensitized him to crime and violence, while his social economic status has placed him at a disadvantage. A poor child with poor choices. But still one must survive. And if Darwin’s Theory is correct, and naturally we adapt to our environment, then what choice did I truly have?”

In choric interludes reminiscent of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” the actors offer razor-sharp one-liners, like Lawrence’s “From as early as you could remember, you were a problem child” and Roberts’ painful cry that seems to reverberate through the room long after the performance ends: “Why did I have to be the bad thing that happened to good people?” 

The answer Roberts receives, the message underlying all of PPTG, resonated with the audience as powerfully as with the prisoners: “Oh, kiddo. You did a bad thing.  But that’s not who you are.  You are a caring human being."