Behind Prison Walls

Nancy - West Park, New York
Entered on February 5, 2009
Age Group: 50 - 65
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Behind Prison Walls

I’ve come to believe that all the differences that separate us are nothing to the commonalities we share. I’d learned to see in black, white, man, woman, rich poor. Raise with labels and intentioned or not, I took them out into the world. I welcomed the election of Obama and the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as collective signs of change. I understood through recent experience the positive benefits that change can bring.

The only time I’d thought about prisons was when I was driving passed one. Razor-wired walls and those who lived within terrified me. Mostly men, mostly, black, mostly poor. Labels made it easier and the media’s depiction of violent prison cultures encouraged my fears. Then a proposal to start a theatre workshop in a men’s maximum security prison came via a phone call. Told, with my theater degree and 30 years experience directing plays in my small community, I was a natural choice. But was I? White, middle-aged., I began my list of labels that would prevent me, but I finally agreed.

My first day was jaw-dropping. There were metal-detectors, gates slamming shut, suspicious stares, and 30 men waiting. Immediately I felt inadequate, so caught up in our differences I nearly sabotaged the opportunity. Then a horrible incident brought “unlikely us” together. With two words, “what happened,” I unleashed hurtful frustrations that spilled out for the next two hours.

It was a story of two artists, a conservative Hispanic Christian, and a liberal black Muslim, asked to paint a mural on an old handball wall. The project sponsored by a local organization, was to be a backdrop for picture taking. The first artist chose a Biblical theme, Moses coming through the Red Sea. The second, more politically-minded, added multi-cultural masses carrying national flags marching together. At the top, portraits of those who fought, grass-roots style, for human rights.

The area by the wall became a meeting ground for ideological discussions. A problem came when there was no clear consensus on a white American for the wall. News of this dilemma spread and on July 4th, the artists arrived to find their wall whitewashed. Gone. No explanation.

Again I felt inadequate, caught by the irony of the Independence Day timing. I finally suggested it wasn’t meant to be a mural. I t was covered over yes, but still there, what it needed was a voice.

One year later along with our script we had a planned performance. Post 9/11 orange alerts caused constant postponements leading to my frustrations that The Wall would never be seen. An observant actor told me it didn’t matter, as the message of the wall was right before us. Black, Hispanic, White, 5 religions, 4 gangs, were choosing to work together, something rarely found in prisons. Life imitating art had intervened and the white-washed mural was speaking.

For nearly 6 years, I, the teacher turned student, was learning to stop filtering through labels. Learning we‘re all connected like-dreams hidden behind walls labeled “keep-out”. Taking that first step and volunteering gave me an incredible opportunity. I learned to believe behind razor-wired walls, that if you reach out, someone will reach back, reach within and change will happen.