This week, I attended a special performance by a theater troupe at one of the Grafton, Ohio prisons. Entitled ODAG Swagg II. Along with the general public, I had attended two previous productions by the troupe, one of Midsummers Night Dream and an original play titled, And Still I Rise, both excellent, but this third proved especially rife with emotion as it was a performance for family and friends, followed by a talk-back and then a pizza dinner.
At the sallyport before we went in, I introduced myself to a woman from Cleveland who told me who her brother was and that she had not seen him for ten years. (He says it's been 18 years.) I asked if she knew what he was performing, because I did. He was performing "Thumbelina," which I had heard in rehearsal and found curious. He is a big, muscular man that one wouldn't expect to choose such a story. (Honestly, I wouldn't expect any inmate to CHOOSE that story.) But he precedes it with his childhood memory of loving Danny Kaye and Kaye's telling of the tale, and he himself has the quietest voice and the gentlest manner. "Yes," she said. "Thumbelina. It's a story we listened to together over and over on our record player."
Once in the makeshift theater, I ended up sitting next to another sister, whose brother I had also heard practice the poem he wrote (and re- and re-wrote) about who we should and should not fight for, strong in its stand for friends and neighbors supporting each other and not turning against each other in times of crisis, and not for fighting for the sake of fighting.
I also met a mother and son who told me -- as they had told others before-- what a relief it was to hear their son/brother involved in something so positive, something that made them feel such emotion, such joy, how they laughed at his antics in Midsummers Night Dream.
I must admit that as I sat in the audience that night, I watched these three families. The men delivered their lines to the audience but clearly spoke to family members; the siblings and parents and guardians sat in rapt attention. I could not take my eyes off the sister listening to "Thumbelina." I thought the delivery of "The quality of mercy" speech from Merchant of Venice was perfectly delivered. All of the acts were charged with meaning and emotion.
A man in the audience named Paul Hill Jr. from NROPI (National Rites of Passage Institute) wrote this summary of the show:
"Each actor performed a poem, speech, monologue, or song that he chose
independently that weaved Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” together
with the actors’ performances into a life cycle story.
"ODAG Artistic Director Tracey Field who served
as the Director of SWAGG 2, helped facilitate these
remarkable men to express their intelligence, passion, and commitment in
their very own ODAG SWAGG 2. The SWAGG sequence braided into “The Seven Ages of Men” included the
works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Shakespeare, Hans Christian
Anderson, Og Mandino, Michael Jackson, and one original piece by actor Dewey Oden.
"All the actors shared with the audience why they chose the various
selections performed—many had to do with past and present life
experiences and personal feelings about family, community, national and
global issues. I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of production and performances and chosen materials which were weaved with perfection."
Afterward, there were big embraces between the brothers and sisters and lots of pizza and salad, sitting around tables talking about Cleveland and Youngstown and Akron.
I know there are those who believe that inmates should not be able to have such meaningful experiences. These are the people who believe in the death penalty, who believe our criminal justice system is fair, who believe in nothing but punishment. They can go to hell, as my Grandpa Young would say.
I side with Paul Hill Jr., who said this in the end: "I left a witness and believer in these guys and their future, the ODAG
Project and the POWER of the ARTS—-thank you Phyllis Gorfain, Director
for ODAG, Oberlin College and the GRC Staff."