On Writing and Staging a Play in Prison
By Sterling CunioJuly 6, 2022
“Project your voice,” I tell Ben, who typically speaks in a whisper. “When they hear you, they need to know you mean business.”
“Randal, don’t try no slick shit neither,” I say to a buddy in the group who thinks he’s smoother than he is. “We can’t mess this up.”
The phone rings, and we glance at each other nervously. This is it. We’re about to do a telephonic performance of a scene from the play Austin’s Echo.
The best thing to happen in my career as a writer was receiving the prestigious PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship in 2019 to produce Austin’s Echo, an original play about a modern-day prisoner haunted by the ghost of Austin Reed, the first African American to write a memoir about his incarceration in Auburn State Prison in the mid-1800s. The story demonstrates the unchanging function of prison across a 200-year time span. I’ve been working on it for months and am about to share a scene from it for the first time on a conference call with fellowship mentor Baba Israel and Caits Meissner, PEN America’s director of Prison and Justice Writing.
“I’m placing you on speakerphone now,” says the prison staff member facilitating the call.
Getting institutional approval for the call was no easy task. By design, prison administrators are trained to anticipate the worst outcome imaginable, so any possible problem is enough to say no to a special request. Sometimes they’re denied simply because the prison hasn’t done it before, and my vision for staging Austin’s Echo is ambitious. For performances inside the prison, there will be a mixed cast of prisoners and civilians. Performances in theaters beyond the wall will include post-performance panel discussions with criminal-reform advocates. To collaborate with community actors and volunteers, authorization for them to access the prison is necessary. Additionally, we will need time and space for rehearsal and staging.
Of course, not all projects require the institution’s buy-in. Indeed, the ability to resist silencing is one of the greatest freedoms writing can empower. Yet, behind walls, if you want to develop something beyond the page, you need permission, and it is paramount to be as transparent as possible with your intent while simultaneously highlighting all potential benefits to the institution. So I approached the institution’s chaplains and requested permission to start a theater group. Handing them a copy of the project proposal, along with the letter announcing my fellowship, I explained how this would be a great opportunity to bring guys together and enhance the social skills necessary for theater, such as listening, working together, commitment, dedication, and more. In this instance, they would be providing pro-social opportunities. The play would foster hard work and constructive focus, while the fellowship deadlines would require taking responsibility for fulfilling commitments. Permission was granted on the condition that a community volunteer was willing to come inside and supervise. An easy requirement, since I’d already secured the commitment of multiple artists and actors willing to help out.
“Just let me have the guys introduce themselves real quick so you can associate voices with characters,” I say after confirming Baba and Caits are on the line. I nod at the cast to begin. The group is excited, and I’m nervous. These are professionals on the phone, and knowing I’ve been working on the project for over six months, they have high expectations.
Before telling you about the process of bringing a play to life, you should know this isn’t some feel-good lollipop-inspirational “you can do it” speech written by a life-on-easy-street outsider trying to jack you up on hope dope. No, I’m just like you. Born to a woman shackled to a hospital bed and an unknown father, I was a mulatto bastard seemingly fated to state captivity. After becoming an orphan at age 12, I entered the culture of street crime and violently spun out of control until I was sentenced to life without parole at 16 years old. Although I’ve ceased being criminally active, I’ve never betrayed prisoner codes, and after 26 years of incarceration, I remain in good standing among solid peers. I tell you these things so you can understand me clearly — I know the struggle.
I began writing in the hole to exorcise demons and discovered a knack for poetry. I started taking advantage of any opportunity I could find to enhance my writing skills. After entering a challenging writing group led by author Lauren Kessler, I submitted my work to the PEN Prison Writing Contest and applied for fellowships. Although I’m an emotional writer whose prose is fueled by feelings, my most significant writing effort to date, Austin’s Echo, is based on 200 years of history.
“Today, we will be performing the third scene, which takes place in a prison workshop. Can you hear us?” I ask into the phone sitting on the floor between the eight of us crammed into a small office wearing our COVID masks.
The initial plan was to focus solely on research for two months and then start writing, but after reading advice from another fellow in the program, I began writing while researching and let the story evolve with the information. I was prepared to contact dozens of people before locating a single person willing to assist my endeavor — the key to being resourceful as a prisoner is unrelenting effort — so I contacted experts in areas related to the project and held faith. By sending countless letters and emails and placing calls to various people, I was finally able to connect with the head of Willamette University’s Theatre Department, who proofread my material, provided books and advice, and introduced me to a set designer. I arranged a meeting with a folk music historian about the chain-gang songs included in the performance and worked with a census researcher to gather information on Auburn State Prison staff in 1821.
While writing, I shared multiple drafts with trusted advisors and sought their feedback. Since I consistently heard there was too much historical exposition in my drafts for a drama piece, I added multiple musical and rhythmic elements. I enlisted the support of a professional musician, Rich McCloud, who was kind enough to volunteer his time in support of the project. Though there are people inside the prison musically talented enough to be professionals, because of prison’s volatility, it’s more important to prioritize reliability over raw talent. A single person’s misstep can jeopardize the whole project, as prisons often practice group punishment and don’t hesitate to shut down the activities of many due to the misdeeds of one. Furthermore, having witnessed on multiple occasions strong work ethic out-succeed raw talent, I selected a group of hardworking guys with sufficient skills who would faithfully show up to rehearsal and work hard at the training Rich gave us.
In February, we began meeting once a week, and the coaching was world class. There was no doubt the play’s musical elements would be among the best. Then COVID-19 struck, and the prison stopped allowing visitor access and group activities. After only four meetings, we lost our professional coaching. To make matters more difficult, the restrictions meant we could no longer practice as a group.
But today we’re going to attempt to sing an eight-part harmony. “Be my woman, gal, I’ll—” sings out De’anthony, who’s leading the group in a call-and-response chain-gang version of the song “Rosie.” “—be your man,” the group responds. Cornelius, a drummer, slaps a beatbox on a wooden stool.
I think we sound good. Prior to the call, I actually considered skipping the song, since there’s no quicker way to make a bad impression than sounding like shit. Baba’s a professional musician, and we’re a bunch of guys banging out beats on lids. But since Baba had spent time reading and thinking about the pieces, and I had already told Caits about the music, I decided to leave it in the performance; it’s important to deliver on what you say. This may seem basic “word is bond” knowledge, but when you are trying to get established, it’s mandatory to meet deadlines and demonstrate a reliability worthy of people’s faith. Following through on previous projects has opened up doors to further opportunities such as public readings, inclusion in art events, and a chance to share a piece in this book for my peers.
We make it through the song and move into a debate between characters about whether systemic conditions influence behavior more than personal choice. The dialogue has a spoken-word cadence that relies on rhythm and timing to drive theatrical action.
“There’s parts of this country so poor, if cats don’t hustle they don’t eat,” calls out De’anthony’s character.
“Facts,” says the group in unison.
“Got poor country bumpkins out in the hills and swamps living in hand-me-down trailers and eating turtle soup.”
“People living in city projects where there’s nothing but crime and violence for blocks upon blocks.”
A half-hour later, we’ve made it through the scene without any miscues or blunders. Looking around the tiny office, I’m proud of the guys, and can see they also feel a sense of accomplishment. COVID wasn’t our only challenge. Just three weeks ago the prison eased some restrictions that would have allowed us time to practice together. Until that point, I had been meeting with guys individually wherever we could connect for a few minutes on the yard, in the chow hall, at work. But as soon as the restrictions relaxed, the worst wildfires in Oregon’s history broke out in the county where four of the state’s 14 prisons are located — including the one we’re in. Three prisons were evacuated and brought to the state penitentiary for emergency housing. Rival gangs immediately fell into violent conflict, prompting lockdowns in cells filled with smoke as thick as fog. By the time things returned to the usual weird, we had only two one-hour rehearsal sessions before today’s call. Now we’re all sitting eagerly awaiting the listeners’ response.
“Yo, that was incredible,” says Baba. “Your timing on some of those parts was remarkable.” His comments cause the actors to break out in smiles and fist bump each other.
“You really brought alive the camaraderie you guys share,” says Caits. “I feel like I was able to experience what life is like inside. You made the moments accessible.”
We spent the rest of the hour receiving feedback. The call galvanized the commitment of the inside cast and assured them of our ability to pull together the material. And this is just the beginning. When the pandemic is over, I will be working with my friend and mentor Phil Stockton to get the play produced in community venues. Eventually, I’ll market the script.
One of my greatest hopes is to be an inspirational example for my peers, particularly those in the direst of conditions who remain determined to improve their existence. I write this for you. To assure you writing can create possibility and opportunities capable of transcending the walls that hold us. Just remember to write while you research, be relentless in your pursuit of allies, always keep your word, show benefit to the community, prioritize reliability in collaborators, be transparent, seek honest feedback, and most importantly, be diligent and patient.
From the collection The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison, published by Haymarket Books.
Sterling Cunio is a 2019–2020 PEN America Writing for Justice fellow, a 2019 Oregon Literary Arts fellow, and a two-time PEN America Prison Writing Award winner for his essay “Going Forward with Gus” (2018) and co-authored play The Bucket (2018).
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