Live theater illuminates darkness in prison | Arts and Entertainment

Video: Trailer for If Light Closed its Eyes, recently performed at Sterling Correctional Facility.

STERLING. “There are African religions that believe that you are not truly dead until you are forgotten,” a retired Universalist Unitarian minister from the Sterling Correctional Facility told me last week.

When Corey Johnson was executed by lethal injection in January 2021, Bill Breeden promised the convicted killer and his family that he would not from be forgotten.

“Tonight I feel like I’ve kept that promise,” Breeden said after attending the opening of “If the Light Shut Your Eyes,” a groundbreaking new play written, developed and directed by more than 50 inmates at the prison, 120 miles northeast of from Denver.

“His name is in this play, which means that his name will live forever.”

The goal of the creative team at the University of Denver Prison Art Initiative was to better understand the backbone of the criminal justice system at this historic moment. Breeden was one of more than 100 people who were interviewed as part of the nearly three-year project, along with victims, family members, lawyers, politicians and other spiritual leaders.

Their words have been transcribed and painstakingly framed into what is being called a “verbatim documentary play,” which premiered on July 20 in the most authentic setting any living play about the prison system can have: deep within the sprawling, thorny bowels of the largest prison in the world. system of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Breeden traveled to Colorado to see the play from Indiana. It was here, just five days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, that Johnson became the 12th of 13 people executed in the last six months of Donald Trump’s presidency after he ended a 17-year hiatus from federal executions.

Johnson was a 23-year-old drug dealer who claimed the lives of seven people in a shockingly brutal murder in Richmond, Virginia. His lawyers argued that Johnson was mentally handicapped due to childhood physical abuse. That his drug addict mother left him at 13 and he eventually left the foster care system. During his execution, witnesses on death row cheered when Johnson was pronounced dead at the age of 52.

Not Breeden, who for 30 years served as the spiritual mentor of death row inmates. When he met Johnson just two weeks before his execution, he became the first visitor Johnson was allowed to see in his 29 years on death row.

“I spent about 30 hours with Corey, and that’s the most real 30 hours I’ve ever spent with anyone,” said Breeden, who called serving Johnson in his final days “probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had.” or had in his life. – and it also probably broke me more than anything ever.”

The cast of “If the Light Closed Your Eyes,” a collaboration between the DU Prison Arts Initiative and the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Breeden denounces Johnson’s crimes, but not the man who is just part of the complex terrain that “If the Light Shut Your Eyes” tackles with words, art, live music, movement and dance for a uniquely immersive theatrical experience that rocked. the spaciousness of the auditorium is to the core like the shattered bars of a prison cell.

“We’ve been working to try and tell an incredibly complex and light-and-dark 360-degree story in a meaningful and innovative way,” said DU Prison Arts Initiative founder Ashley Hamilton, who also directs and co-stars on the game.

The other was none other than Dean Williams, executive director of 19 prisons for the Colorado Department of Corrections. Williams is something of a minister himself, zealously preaching the gospel of normalization within the state prison system as the best possible way to ensure success when prisoners are reintegrated into the outside world.

“We’re showing the world how it can be different,” Williams said, actually playing himself in the story. He was a lightning rod in the national conversation about criminal justice because he had the audacity to believe that justice and mercy could live together in the same cell block, along with responsibility and redemption.

“Every day, forces are working against me that want to return to the Middle Ages,” he said. “But it has to be a place where things can get better, not worse.”

Using Creativity to Heal

The DU Prison Arts Initiative exists to empower prisoners to develop healthy, meaningful creative opportunities for self-expression. He directs plays such as Antigone and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, produces both a podcast and a prison newspaper, coordinates visual art shows, and runs the nation’s only prison radio station. Hamilton believes that by giving prisoners a purpose, a project, a goal, and some positive reinforcement, they change the dialogue around the value we place on life in prison.

The cast of If the Light Shut Your Eyes received a lot of positive feedback from its original viewers, who had an immersive experience that begins the moment they pull into a parking lot surrounded by miles of wire and suffocating gray concrete.

After passing a security check and a quick orientation, they are taken deeper into the prison grounds than most people have ever seen. The performance actually begins “in the courtyard”, on the long journey to Cell Block 4. It’s a living, breathing 3D art show. Sixty prisoners are lined up on either side of the sidewalk, now reimagined as “Humanity’s Hallway”, each wearing a dull official gray that contrasts sharply with the colorful paintings they hold, which were created by the imprisoned artist.

As you walk by, the men chant poetic mantras, such as “I still believe there is value in me” and “There is more to me than the decisions I’ve made.” Daniel Malcolm, a man with the words “DEAD MEN TELL NOT” tattooed across his face from one ear to the other, tells this very moving story: “Most men in prison are there because of the choices they are given in life.” Along the way, you it is suggested that you stop and watch and listen to these men in a way that you might never feel safe in another environment, and what you see is just… people.

The accommodating audience of 100 corrections officers mingled with the legal crowd, former parolees, family members of victims and perpetrators, police officers, enterprising theatergoers, and many of those whose interviews formed the basis of the script. And speaking of realism, dozens of extras help set the mood in the form of prison flies constantly buzzing on the faces of the audience.

Throughout the grand evening, the audience is given plenty to reflect on responsibility, regret, God, trauma, dignity, racism and the lasting damage that is inflicted on victims and their families that can only be saved by time, responsibility, education, forgiveness and the kind of healing that can only be achieved through honest restorative justice. Difficult questions are asked. Yes, these people have done something that can no longer be corrected. And they must pay for their crimes. But is time spent in prison really paying off? To anyone?

If the light closed my eyes

Matthew Labonte plays a character based on former minister Bill Breeden.

The best plays feature complex and sometimes conflicting characters, and are not much more like either other than Breeden, now 70, who was raised from birth as a Nazarene preacher in an Indiana town where not a single person of color couldn’t go out after sunset. “I was raised a racist fundamentalist Christian,” said Breeden, who began preaching at age 15. “I thought I was preaching the teachings of Jesus, but most of what I preached was just (damn),” he said. “I was a racist, ignorant, white boy preacher who thought he knew everything and didn’t know (beep).”

His conversion came when he ran into a hungry black woman in an alley behind the supermarket where he worked as a teenager. It was the meeting that marked the beginning of his life’s journey, challenging old assumptions. “I call her Jesus,” Breeden said, “because she changed my life.”

Darkness turns to light

The play is set in a large prison house – three horizontal floors of showers and prison cells that open to a loud metallic clang and from which the actors emerge to tell their stories.

On the top tier is a large blank canvas, which – inspired by the Cloud Cult concert – turns into a full-fledged painting during the evening. The cellist creates a soundscape against the backdrop of a cacophony of storms, telephones and a crying baby. By the end of the play, dozens of real-life characters have challenged the audience to confront their inherent biases and biases.

Hamilton’s radically sensitive belief is that telling stories from behind walls changes hearts and minds. This is how things are… and this is how things can be. This is how Bill Breeden spewed out the same racist bile he was fed like poisonous mother’s milk. And there is Breeden now at the other end of his life, a distinguished humanist who believes that “if there is no place in the heart of God for Corey Johnson, then there is no place in the heart of God for me.”

This execution, he added, “was the worst thing I have ever gone through.” Partly because Johnson was executed when he was ill with COVID. But that evening, 30 years later, looking at this play, Breeden said: “I feel that these people have given me a real gift.”

The plan was to perform “If Light Closed its Eyes” over two weekends, but another COVID outbreak canceled that second week, reducing their nearly three years of work to three precious public performances. But there are plans to stage Godspell at another state prison this December.

Williams believes that “we are changing the system … one theater performance at a time.”

If the Light Closed Your Eyes Casting 2

The cast of “If the Light Closed Your Eyes,” a collaboration between the DU Prison Arts Initiative and the Colorado Department of Corrections.


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