Joshua and I performed for the South Carolina Department of Justice last week. We did three performances of “Struggle for Freedom,” for young men and women in a juvenile detention center. I knew that the writer in me was going to find all sorts of ways of having it “mean” something. And with or without that part of my brain moving at a high speed all day long, it was quite an experience.
Last Wednesday was a gray, cloudy day in Columbia, South Carolina. As we passed through security and drove toward the chapel where we would be performing, we were mostly astonished at how many geese there were. Hundreds of geese. It seemed as though we had taken a wrong turn off a busy street in the state’s capital and landed on a farm. I’m sure that on a sunny day it is a nice place to be. Acres of rolling hills, a large lake, a wooden building reminiscent of a barn. The redoubtable white steeple protruding from the church in the distance. All of this surrounded, of course, by barbed wire.
Our first performance was for a packed auditorium full of young defiant faces and police uniforms. But they listened attentively and afterwards we answered a lot of questions, which is unusual for a group of people in their mid-teens. Usually nobody opens their mouth and if they do ask a question they get laughed at. Someone asked if we ever make embarrassing mistakes onstage. I told them about the time I flew off the stage during a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream and ended up in a pile of mud with a sprained ankle yelling “wait for me, Demetrius!” They liked that. After the show a young man named Isaiah approached us backstage and told us that when he got out he wanted to be an actor. We chatted with him for a long time. It was hard to believe that a room filled with so many seemingly nice people had to get arrested in order to see our play.
The second performance was for a much smaller, much more serious crowd comprised of young men in brown suits and orange bow ties from a nearby camp. Usually when nobody has a question after the show, Joshua talks a little bit about why it’s important for them to see the play- because without the Civil Rights Movement, we wouldn’t be able to be in this theater together. During this particular speech, Joshua threw in something about following your dreams, so I jumped in on that and joked, “Anybody out there have any dreams that you want to share with the group?”
The crickets liked it. They cheered wildly from the silence in the back of the room. Eventually Joshua said, “I think she was just kidding.” One kid in the front row laughed politely. Then he looked as if his own laugh caught him by surprise.
Our last performance was for a different center down the road. As we set up in the gym, young men in jumpsuits marched by. Literally marched. In a line. Our contact for the performance, Ms. H, sighed as she set up a table for us adorned with Valentine’s themed decorations and cookies. “Today has been… hard,” she admitted. And that was when I realized I had no clue what we were facing.
However, it was a pretty good show. Most of the kids seemed completely enthralled. Only one person had to be taken from the room. And by the end of the show if anyone started acting up I made direct eye contact with them until they got uncomfortable and started listening again. Getting questions out of this group for the Q&A started slowly.
“Yeah, him over there. He got a question.”
We scanned the crowd but didn’t see a hand.
“Right there, on the end.”
And there he was. A kid who couldn’t have been more than 11 years old. A little boy drowning in a blank, gray sweatshirt with a tiny pink face and large ears. He had a high pitched voice, and a large mouth full of big crooked teeth. As he spoke, the room erupted into laughter, but he was unfazed.
“I just wanted to say, y’all did a really good job. And I learned a lot about Martin Luther King that I didn’t know. I had a really good time.”
Officer? Can I take him home? Wait. This is an adjudicated juvenile in an evaluation center. What happened? This kid looked like Opie Taylor. He should be fishing with his Grandpa, not sitting in a sea of jumpsuits.
Either way, he opened up the room and we answered questions for at least 15 minutes. As we packed up, Ms. H prepared a bag full of snacks for us to take on the road while another teacher super glued one of our prop chairs back together. The officers put the folding chairs back. I showed Ms. H where I had haphazardly sewn the armpit of my dress back together a couple of weeks ago and she gasped and said, “You know I have a sewing machine, I could’ve fixed that for you.” Another teacher, while helping to carry our equipment back to the car pointed to one of the officers and said, “Got a voice like you wouldn’t believe. I told him he should go to Nashville.” While this went on, a line of young men faced the wall and stood quietly waiting for us to pack up, only looking back when I dropped a folding chair on the ground and yelled “my bad.”
As we walked out of the gym to the car, they had been released from the line and were playing basketball. I thought about how at the beginning of the day I had walked past a line of young men with my head down, so when I left I made sure to smile at as many of them as I could. And they all smiled back.
I don’t know why anybody was in that room. I don’t know how serious their crimes are. How violent. I’m in the middle of reading a pretty detailed MLK biography. He was a flawed man. Spent a lot of nights with a lot of women. Spent most of his life feeling terrified. I think about that principal in Richmond, VA I wrote about last month and how frustrated she seemed because she could only do so much work before she sent her kids back home into an environment she couldn’t control. I think about the “school to prison pipeline” or the “schoolhouse to jailhouse” phenomenon. I think that for a long time I will wonder about Jailhouse Opie with the big ears and the big smile surrounded by large teenagers in jumpsuits, giving us compliments. I think about how lucky I am because I’m pretty broke and I’ve made a few mistakes but at the end of the day if I’ve given up I can go back to a good home. And I think about how the phrase “theatre can change the world” makes me feel naive.
But those kids were listening.